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Israel PM orders troops to prepare for push into Rafah

An Israeli helicopter takes off during a military exercise in Upper Galilee near the Lebanon border on February 7, 2024
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered troops to prepare to enter the overcrowded Gazan city of Rafah, even as a new round of 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 intense recent diplomatic efforts, though visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted on Wednesday that he still saw "space for agreement to be reached".

Concerns were mounting, meanwhile, for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have sought refuge in Rafah along the Egyptian border, with UN chief Antonio Guterres warning a military push into the city "would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare".

In televised remarks Wednesday, Netanyahu said he had ordered troops to "prepare to operate" in the city and that "total victory" over Hamas was just months away.

Regarding the ceasefire proposal, he added: "Giving in to the bizarre demands of Hamas that we have just heard will... only invite another massacre."

Blinken, who is on yet another trip to the region to press for a truce, told reporters in Tel Aviv that Hamas's counter-proposal at least offered an opportunity "to pursue negotiations".

An injured man looks at the rubble of a destroyed building in the aftermath of Israeli bombardment on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 7, 2024

"While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas's response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached, and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there," Blinken said, hours after meeting Netanyahu.

- More talks -

A new round of negotiations aimed at achieving "calm" in Gaza and a prisoner-hostage exchange was set to open Thursday in Cairo, an Egyptian official said.

Palestinians protest against a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Israel and the West Bank in Ramallah on February 7, 2024

Cairo was urging "both parties to show the necessary flexibility" to make a deal, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A Hamas source with knowledge of the matter confirmed that the Palestinian group had agreed to the talks with the goals of "a ceasefire, an end to the war and a prisoner exchange deal".

The war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas's unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Smoke billows over the southern Lebanese border village of El-Khiam during Israeli bombardment on February 7, 2024

Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas in response and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,708 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

The ministry said Thursday morning that another 109 people had been killed in overnight strikes.

Militants also seized around 250 hostages on October 7. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.

The fate of the hostages has gripped Israeli society, and while Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that military pressure is the only way to bring them home, he has faced mounting calls to strike a deal.

Addressing the prime minister, Adina Moshe, one of the hostages released as part of a temporary ceasefire deal brokered in November, told a press conference in Tel Aviv: "Everything is in your hands."

"And I'm very afraid and very concerned that if you continue with this line of destroying Hamas, there won't be any hostages left to release," she added.

- Fears for Rafah -

As Israel prepared to press further south, fears were also growing for the displaced Palestinian civilians thronging Rafah, pressed against Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

More than half of Gaza's 2.4 million people are estimated to have sought safety in the city.

"Their living conditions are abysmal -- they lack the basic necessities to survive, stalked by hunger, disease and death," UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said in a statement.

"As the war encroaches further into Rafah, I am extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of families which have endured the unthinkable in search of safety."

Blinken stopped short of calling on Israel not to move on the city, but did voice concern at the new push, saying any "military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost".

The war in Gaza has sparked a surge in violence across the region, largely by Iran-backed groups operating in solidarity with Hamas, drawing retaliatory attacks not only by Israel but also the United States and its allies.

An American air strike in Iraq on Wednesday killed a senior commander from a pro-Iran armed group who was "responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on US forces", the US Central Command said.

The strike came after Washington last week launched a wave of attacks on Iran-linked targets in Iraq and Syria following the killing of three American troops in neighbouring Jordan.

In Lebanon, state media reported that Israeli strikes on a southern village killed one civilian and wounded two others on Wednesday.

Since October 7, the Lebanese-Israeli border has seen near-daily exchanges of fire between Israel and the Iran-backed Hamas ally Hezbollah.

International Crisis Group president Comfort Ero warned Wednesday that the hostilities around the region increased the possibility of the situation boiling over.

"I think the big three -- Iran, Israel and the US -- do not want to see escalation," she told AFP in Washington. "But we are also seeing that every day we're one step closer to a major miscalculation."