JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered troops to prepare to enter Gaza’s crowded southern city of Rafah, even as new talks aimed at securing a truce with Hamas were set to open Thursday in Cairo.
Netanyahu announced the order after rejecting Hamas’s response to a ceasefire proposal at the centre of recent intensive diplomatic efforts, dismissing what he called the militant group’s “bizarre demands”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken — in Israel as part of his fifth Middle East crisis tour since the October 7 attack — insisted he still saw “space for agreement to be reached” to halt the fighting and bring home hostages.
Heavy fighting raged on unabated, with more air strikes hitting Hamas-ruled Gaza, now in its fifth month of war, where the health ministry said another 109 people were killed overnight.
Alarm has mounted especially for the more than one million Palestinians crowded into Gaza’s far south as the battlefront has crept ever closer to the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.
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The Israeli army said Thursday it was operating in both the north and the south of the Gaza Strip, and that it had killed 30 “terrorists” across the territory.
“Two terrorists that participated in the October 7 massacre” were arrested as well as a member of Hamas’s commando unit, it added.
Netanyahu, in televised remarks Wednesday, said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah and predicted that coming months would bring “total victory”.
Regarding the ceasefire proposal, he added: “Giving in to the bizarre demands of Hamas that we have just heard will... only invite another massacre.”
Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe if Israel follows through on its threat to enter one of the last remaining areas of the Gaza Strip that its troops have not moved into during its ground offensive.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday that pushing into Rafah on the border with Egypt would “increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences.”
Israeli planes bombed areas in Rafah on Thursday morning, residents said, killing at least 11 people in strikes on two houses. Tanks also shelled some areas in eastern Rafah, intensifying the residents’ fears of an imminent ground assault.
Inside Rafah, mourners wept over bodies of those killed in an air strike that hit the Tel Al-Sultan neighbourhood. The corpses were laid out in white shrouds. A man carried the body of a small child in a black bag.
“Suddenly in a blink of an eye, rockets fell on children, women, and elderly men. What for? Why? Because of the upcoming ceasefire? Usually before any ceasefire this happens,” said resident Mohammed Abu Habib.
Emad, 55, a father of six sheltering in Rafah after fleeing his home elsewhere, said the greatest fear was a ground assault with nowhere left to run: “We have our backs to the (border) fence and faces toward the Mediterranean. Where should we go?
Despite Israel’s rejection of the Hamas proposal, more talks are planned. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who had shuttled between mediators in pursuit of a deal this week on his fifth trip to the region since the start of the war, said he still saw room for negotiations.
In a late-night press conference in a Tel Aviv hotel on Wednesday, Blinken said elements of the proposal put forward by Hamas had contained clear “non-starters”, without saying what they were, but that he would push on with talks.
Blinken also said that the civilian death toll was still too high and reiterated that Israel’s military operation should put civilians first and foremost.
“And that’s especially true in the case of Rafah, where there are somewhere between 1.2 and 1.4 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of Gaza.” He said he had suggested some ways to minimise harm in talks with Israeli leaders, but gave no details. Blinken departed to return to the US on Thursday afternoon.
A Hamas delegation led by senior official Khalil Al Hayya arrived in Cairo on Thursday for ceasefire talks with mediators Egypt and Qatar.
The delegation is expected to meet Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and the team managing Egypt’s mediation on Gaza, Egyptian security sources said.
Speaking in Nicosia, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Egypt was working with all stakeholders to find a solution to end the conflict and urged the international community to apply more pressure to allow aid into Gaza.
“The human suffering in Gaza is unthinkable, and a humanitarian support system on the verge of collapsing, and the threats of a dangerous expansion of the conflict are real and unfolding,” he told reporters.
Jordan’s King Abdullah has also embarked on a diplomatic mission aimed at ending the war, visiting Western capitals in a tour that will include a meeting with US President Joe Biden.
Hamas, which governs Gaza, proposed a ceasefire of 4-1/2 months, during which all hostages held in Gaza would go free, Israel would withdraw its troops and an agreement would be reached on an end to the war.
The Hamas offer was a response to a proposal drawn up by US and Israeli spy chiefs and delivered to Hamas last week by Qatar and Egypt.
Hamas says it will not agree to any deal that does not include an end to the war and Israeli withdrawal. Israel says it will not withdraw or stop fighting until Hamas is eradicated.
RISING DEATH TOLL
Israel began its military offensive after Hamas militants from Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in southern Israel on October 7, according to Israeli tallies.
Israel’s military said on Thursday that over the past day its troops had killed more than 20 militants in Gaza’s main southern city Khan Younis, now site of some of the war’s most intense fighting. It has made similar claims daily, which cannot be independently confirmed, since launching an operation to storm the city last month.
It said it had apprehended dozens of suspected militants, including two suspected of involvement in the Oct. 7 attack. Seventy-one detainees arrested earlier were released.
Gaza’s health ministry says at least 27,840 Palestinians have been confirmed killed, and more than 67,000 injured.
The Israeli bombardment continued in Khan Younis and Deir Al Balah in central Gaza overnight, killing a Palestinian television journalist, Nafez Abdul Jawwad, and his son.
In the only truce to date, lasting a week at the end of November, 110 hostages were released and Israel freed 240 Palestinian prisoners.