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Israel strikes Gaza's Rafah as truce talks under way

International concern has spiralled over Gaza's escalating civilian death toll and the desperate humanitarian crisis
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Israel launched deadly air strikes on Rafah on Thursday, after threatening to send troops in to hunt for Hamas militants in the southern Gaza city where around 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge.

Another 97 people were killed over the past 24 hours in Hamas-run Gaza, the health ministry said, as a US envoy was in Israel for fresh efforts to secure a truce.

International concern has spiralled over the territory's escalating civilian death toll and the desperate humanitarian crisis sparked by the war that followed Hamas's October 7 attack against Israel.

Brett McGurk, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, held talks with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after meeting with other mediators in Cairo.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh was in the Egyptian capital for truce talks earlier this week, the group said.

Mediators including the United States, Qatar and Egypt have tried and so far failed to broker a ceasefire and hostage release deal, but this week have been making a new push to break the deadlock.

Gaza Strip: Rafah, a gigantic refugee camp

The Israeli defence ministry said the discussion with McGurk covered returning hostages, "operational developments in Hamas strongholds in central and southern Gaza, and humanitarian aid efforts", as well as "the "importance of dismantling remaining Hamas battalions".

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists that so far the discussions were "going well".

War cabinet member Benny Gantz sounded an optimistic note ahead of McGurk's arrival, saying efforts to "promote a new plan for the return of the hostages" were showing "the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress".

More than four months of relentless fighting and bombardment have flattened much of Gaza and pushed its population of around 2.4 million to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

- West Bank attack -

The war has also triggered mounting violence in the occupied West Bank, where three Palestinian gunmen opened fire on cars in a traffic jam on Thursday, killing one person and wounding eight, including a pregnant woman.

The attackers were shot dead at the scene, near a Jewish settlement east of Jerusalem.

A body lies on the road near Maale Adumim Jewish settlement, east of Jerusalem, after a shooting attack that killed one person, wounded eight and left three attackers 'neutralised', Israeli police said

Israeli far-right politicians quickly called for more citizens to carry weapons, while Hamas urged an escalation in attacks.

Hours later, a Palestinian man was killed and four others wounded in an Israeli strike on a car in a West Bank refugee camp, the Palestinian health ministry said.

Amateur video footage from the scene appeared to show a car ablaze. Israeli media reported that an Israeli air strike targeted a wanted militant.

Concern has centred on Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians are living in crowded shelters and makeshift camps where disease threatens.

Israel has warned that, if Hamas does not free the remaining hostages held in Gaza by the start of Ramadan on March 10 or 11, it will keep fighting during the Muslim holy month, including in Rafah.

Israel has already been bombing the city, which was again hit overnight.

Gaza's civil defence agency reported "a number" of people were killed.

"I woke up to the sound of a huge explosion like an earthquake -- fire, smoke, blasts and dust everywhere," said Rami al-Shaer, 21, who told AFP he and others pulled wounded family members from the rubble.

- 'Like an earthquake' -

The war started after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

In Rafah residents walked among the rubble of the city's al-Faruq mosque after strikes

Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages -- 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel's retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,410 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza's health ministry.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted the army will fight on until it has destroyed Hamas -- but his failure so far to bring home all the captives has led to mounting domestic pressure.

With Arab support, the United States has called for a pathway to a Palestinian state -- something Israel's parliament has overwhelmingly rejected.

However the G20, which closed a two-day meeting in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, broadly supports a two-state solution, Brazil said.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira told journalists there was "virtual unanimity for the two-state solution as the only possible solution" to the war.

- Aid efforts -

The UN's humanitarian agency said aid to Gaza was being gravely hampered by "intense hostilities, limitations on the entry and delivery of aid, and growing insecurity".

Gazans have said nowhere in the territory is safe

In the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said an Israeli tank had fired on a house sheltering their employees and families, killing two people.

MSF condemned the strike in the "strongest possible terms".

The Israeli army said forces "fired at a building" identified as a place where "terror activity is occurring", adding that it "regrets" harm to civilians.

Seperately, the head of MSF told the UN Security Council he was "appalled" that Washington had repeatedly vetoed resolutions for an immediate ceasefire, accusing the body of deliberating "while civilians died".

Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels have repeatedly attacked Red Sea shipping lanes vital for global trade since the war began, with the Huthis saying they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians.

A missile attack claimed by the Huthis caused a fire on board a British-owned cargo vessel as it passed through the Gulf of Aden on Thursday.

With regional tensions high, two Hezbollah fighters were killed in an Israeli drone strike in south Lebanon, a security source said.

Hezbollah -- which has been exchanging near-daily fire with Israel -- later announced retaliatory rocket fire.

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