Israeli forces intensify Rafah strikes as diplomats seek to salvage Gaza truce

Israel has intensified strikes on Rafah.
Israel has intensified strikes on Rafah. Photo credit: Reuters

Israeli forces bombed areas in the southern border city of Rafah on Thursday where more than half of Gaza's population is sheltering, as diplomats sought to salvage ceasefire talks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a Hamas proposal.

In a sign the diplomacy was not over in the biggest Washington-led push yet to quiet the guns, a Hamas delegation led by senior official Khalil Al-Hayya arrived in Cairo on Thursday for ceasefire talks with mediators Egypt and Qatar.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday terms proposed by Hamas for a ceasefire in the four-month-old war were "delusional", and vowed to fight on, saying victory was in reach and just months away.

Gazans are desperately hoping a ceasefire could arrive in time to head off threatened Israeli assault on Rafah, hard against Gaza's southern border fence, now home to over a million people, many of them in makeshift tents.

Israeli planes bombed parts of the city 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.

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?ΓÇ¥

Israel says it takes steps to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas militants of hiding among civilians, including at school shelters and hospitals, leading to more civilian deaths. Hamas has denied this.

Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe if Israel follows through on its threat to enter Rafah, one of the last remaining areas of the Gaza Strip that its troops have not moved into, where people are desperate for shelter.

"We're living in a place meant for animals," said Umm Mahdi Hanoon, standing among the cages of a chicken coop where her family is now living with four other families. "Imagine a child sleeping in a chicken crate... sometimes we wish the morning won't come."

Diplomatic push

Despite Israel's rejection of the Hamas proposal, more talks are planned. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met mediators this week on his fifth trip to the region since the start of the war, said he still saw room for negotiations.

Blinken also said the civilian death toll was too high and reiterated that Israel's operation should put civilians first.

"And that is 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 said he had suggested some ways to minimise harm in talks with Israeli leaders, but gave no details. Blinken departed to return to the U.S. on Thursday afternoon.

The Hamas delegation in Egypt is expected to meet officials including Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, Egyptian security sources said.

Hamas proposed a ceasefire of 4-1/2 months, during which all hostages would go free, Israel would withdraw its troops and an agreement would be reached on an end to the war. Its offer was a response to a proposal drawn up by U.S. and Israeli spy chiefs with Qatar and Egypt, and delivered to Hamas last week.

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 Oct. 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.

Khan Younis is the hometown of Hamas' Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, mastermind of the Oct. 7 killing and kidnapping spree.

A senior Israeli officer said the military believed he was hiding there.

The military also said it had apprehended dozens of suspected militants. 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 since the conflict began.

The Israeli bombardment continued in Khan Younis and Deir-Al-Balah in central Gaza overnight, killing a Palestinian television journalist, Nafez Abdel-Jawwad, and his son.

Residents and militants also reported gun battles in Gaza City in the north, where fighting has resurged although Israel claimed to have subdued the area months ago.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of the main U.N. aid agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, said on X the agency had been denied access to bring food to areas where people are on the verge of famine.

U.N. human rights chief Volker Turk said the Israeli military was bulldozing civilian infrastructure to create a buffer zone inside Gaza's border fence, which he said may be a war crime. A senior Israeli military official denied this: "Our operations along the border are aimed at exposing tunnels. This is not related to a buffer zone at this time."