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CIA Director William Burns, Israel's Mossad Director David Barnea and Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani are meeting in Cairo for Ceasefire talks. Image Credit: AFP

GAZA STRIP: Israel faced growing international pressure on Tuesday to agree to a ceasefire with Hamas, as it prepared for an incursion into the crowded southern Gaza city of Rafah where more than a million Palestinians are trapped.

CIA Director William Burns met with Mossad chief David Barnea in Cairo Tuesday for a new round of talks on a Qatari-brokered ceasefire proposal, which would temporarily halt fighting in exchange for Hamas freeing hostages.

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The two intelligence chiefs were joined in Cairo by the Qatari prime minister and Egyptian officials, Egypt’s Al-Qahera News reported - two countries in the middle of mediation efforts as ceasefire proposals bounce back and forth between the two sides

The meeting came after the United States and the United Nations warned Israel against carrying out a ground offensive into Rafah without a plan to protect civilians, who say they have nowhere left to go.

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“Wherever we go there’s bombing, martyrs and wounded,” said Iman Dergham, a displaced Palestinian woman.

After White House talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Monday, US President Joe Biden said civilians in Rafah “need to be protected”.

“Many people there have been displaced - displaced multiple times, fleeing the violence to the north, and now they’re packed into Rafah - exposed and vulnerable,” he said.

King Abdullah pushed for a “lasting ceasefire” to end the more than four-month-old war, warning an Israeli attack on Rafah is “certain to produce another humanitarian catastrophe”.

Other countries urged caution on a ground assault, including China, Germany and Norway.

After rejecting Hamas’s terms for a truce last week, Israel conducted a Monday pre-dawn raid in Rafah that freed two hostages and killed around 100 people.

Netanyahu hailed the operation that freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Luis Har, 70, as “perfect”, while the Palestinian foreign ministry said the deaths of dozens of Gazans amounted to a “massacre”.

No safe place

The rare rescue mission - which left Rafah with bomb craters and piles of rubble - came hours after Netanyahu spoke with Biden, who reiterated his opposition to a major assault on Rafah.

He was rebuffed by the Israeli premier, who said “complete victory” cannot be achieved without the elimination of the militants’ last battalions in Rafah.

The United States has angered some Middle East allies by repeatedly refusing to back a full ceasefire, with Washington saying it supports Israel’s drive to eradicate Hamas and calling for shorter pauses with hostage-prisoner swaps instead.

A Hamas official told AFP they were waiting for the outcome of the Cairo meeting but were “open to discussing any initiative that achieves an end to aggression and war.”

A woman cries as she stands before a vehicle loaded with items secured by rope as people flee from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 13, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Over half of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have sought refuge in Rafah, pressed up against the Egypt border in makeshift camps where they face outbreaks of hepatitis and diarrhoea, and a scarcity of food and water.

Some families, already displaced several times, were starting to dismantle tents and gather their belongings to flee once again.

“We escaped the north with empty hands, then we escaped Khan Yunis with almost empty hands,” said one, Ismail Joundiyah.

“We want to be ready this time.”

Netanyahu has said Israel will provide “safe passage” to civilians trying to leave, but foreign governments, Gazans and aid groups questioned where they could go.

“There is no place that is currently safe in Gaza,” said United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

A report in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday said Israel was proposing to create 15 large campsites, of around 25,000 tents each in the southwestern Gaza Strip, as part of an evacuation plan.

The newspaper cited Egyptian officials saying the camps and field hospitals would be installed and administered by Egypt, although there has been no confirmation from either country.

The UN’s human rights chief Volker Turk warned “an extremely high number of civilians” would likely be killed or injured in an Israeli incursion into Rafah, which could also spell the end of the “meagre” humanitarian aid entering Gaza.

“We’re almost out of flour in the north,” said a man in north Gaza’s Beit Lahia. “We can’t even find food and drinks for the children.”

Journalists wounded

As smoke was seen rising over Rafah, Al Jazeera said Tuesday that two of its journalists were severely wounded in an Israeli strike on the city.

Reporter Ismail Abu Omar’s life is at risk after having his right leg amputated, while cameraman Ahmad Matar has suffered multiple wounds and severe bleeding, the Qatar-based broadcaster said quoting an emergency physician.

The war has taken a heavy toll on reporters in Gaza. So far 85 journalists and media professionals have been confirmed killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in their latest toll to February 7.

At least 28,473 people, mostly women and children, have died in Israel’s relentless bombardment and ground offensive in Hamas-run Gaza, according to the health ministry.

The war began after Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on October 7 that killed about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also took about 250 people hostage, around 130 of whom are still in Gaza, according to Israeli figures. Israel says 29 of the remaining captives are presumed dead.

The Israeli military said Tuesday that three more soldiers had been killed in fighting in Gaza, taking its losses to 232 since ground operations began on October 27.

The Israeli army also said it had killed over 30 “terrorists” in Khan Yunis - southern Gaza’s largest city, where there has been heavy fighting in recent weeks.