Israel attacks Rafah as negotiators try to revive Gaza ceasefire talks

Israeli airstrikes hit a southern Gaza border town packed with civilians on Thursday, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced a Hamas ceasefire proposal and said the Israeli army was preparing to enter area.

Attacks on two houses in Rafah killed and wounded several people, according to Palestinian media, and raised fears among the more than a million Palestinians who have sought refuge in the city as Israel’s military has repeatedly warned it plans advance further south in their land invasion.

“There is no place for people to flee,” said Fathi Abu Snema, a 45-year-old father of five who has lived in a United Nations-run school in Rafah for almost four months. “Everyone from all over Gaza ended up in Rafah. I do not know where to go”.

The attacks came a day after Netanyahu rejected a Hamas proposal calling for Israel to withdraw from Gaza, comply with a long-term ceasefire and release Palestinians held in Israeli jails in exchange for the release of Israelis. remaining who were kidnapped during the Hamas-led attack on October 7.

Netanyahu said Hamas’ demands were “ridiculous” and that accepting them would only invite new attacks on Israel. Stating there was “no solution other than total victory,” he said the military had been ordered to prepare to advance toward Rafah, on the border with Egypt, which he called one of the “last remaining strongholds of Hamas.” ”.

At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel expressed concern about the prospect of an Israeli military incursion into Rafah. “We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation,” he said.

Patel said that “carrying out such an operation right now, without planning and without much thought” would be “a disaster.”

As the United Nations also warned of the devastating consequences of an expansion of Israel’s military offensive, Israeli leaders and Hamas officials said Thursday they were still open to new negotiations to stop the fighting.

“There is an agreement among members of the ruling coalition, and particularly among individual members of the government, that we have to recover the hostages and reach an agreement,” Miki Zohar, an Israeli government minister, said in a radio interview. on Thursday morning.

“But not at any price,” Zohar said. “They will not accept, for example, stopping the war.”

Hamas said in a statement that a delegation led by one of its senior officials, Khalil al-Hayya, had arrived in Cairo on Thursday to take part in ceasefire talks with mediators.

Israeli officials have said they were unwilling to accept another offer that would require the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza and leave Hamas in power.

“The complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and the end of this war are, of course, not an option,” an Israeli government spokesman, Eylon Levy, said Thursday. “Hamas was calling for a total capitulation that would leave it free and emboldened to carry out another massacre.”

Still, Israeli leaders concluded there was still room for discussion whether the proposal Hamas offered this week was in the nature of an initial offer, according to two government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

Nadav Shtrauchler, a political analyst who was once Netanyahu’s media strategist, said that although the prime minister had rejected the offer, he left an opportunity.

“The door has closed, but the window remains open, not for that deal, which he couldn’t accept, but for a different deal,” Shtrauchler said.

Aid groups and the United Nations have repeatedly warned that an advance on Rafah would be devastating because the city is now home to more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, many of whom live in ramshackle tents after moving several times in search of security.

The Israeli military made no formal announcement about the strikes on Thursday and declined to comment on whether they signaled the start of a ground offensive, saying it does not discuss “operational activity.”

A military offensive in Rafah “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare, with incalculable regional consequences,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said more than 100 people had been killed by Israeli strikes in the territory over the previous 24 hours. More than 27,000 people have been killed by Israel in Gaza during the four months of war, health authorities there say. Around 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas-led attack on October 7, Israelis say.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid agency, warned that a large-scale Israeli military strike on Rafah and its surroundings would lead to more civilian deaths and risk stopping the trickle of humanitarian aid coming to Rafah from Egypt.

“An expansion of hostilities could turn Rafah into a zone of bloodshed and destruction from which people will not be able to escape,” said Angelita Caredda, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “The conditions in Rafah are already terrible.”

Some Israeli and American officials have questioned how close Israel is to achieving its goal of defeating Hamas.

U.S. intelligence officials told Congress this week that Israel had degraded Hamas’ combat capabilities but was no closer to eliminating the group, U.S. officials said. That assessment appeared to contradict Netanyahu’s statement on Wednesday that victory was “within reach.”

The report was contributed by Abu Bakr Bashir, Julian E. Barnes and Eduardo Wong.