Palestinians mourn over shrouded bodies of relatives killed in overnight Israeli bombardment on the southern Gaza Strip at Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah on February 8, 2024

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered troops to prepare to enter Gaza’s crowded southern city of Rafah, even as new 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 recent intensive diplomatic efforts, dismissing what he called the militant group’s “bizarre demands”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – in Israel as part of his fifth Middle East crisis tour since the October 7 attack – insisted he still saw “space for agreement to be reached” to halt the fighting and bring home hostages.

Heavy fighting raged on unabated, with more air strikes hitting Hamas-ruled Gaza, now in its fifth month of war, where the health ministry said another 109 people were killed overnight.

Alarm has mounted especially for the more than one million Palestinians crowded into Gaza’s far south as the battlefront has crept ever closer to the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned on Wednesday that an Israeli military push into the city “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare”.

The Israeli army said Thursday it was operating in both the north and the south of the Gaza Strip, and that it had killed 30 “terrorists” across the territory.

“Two terrorists that participated in the October 7 massacre” were arrested as well as a member of Hamas’s commando unit, it added.

Netanyahu, in televised remarks Wednesday, said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah and predicted that coming months would bring “total victory”.

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 told reporters in Tel Aviv that Hamas’s counter-proposal had at least offered an opportunity “to pursue negotiations”.

An Israeli soldier looks on as a helicopter takes off during a military exercise in Upper Galilee near the Lebanon border 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.

He later met with moderates in Netanyahu’s war cabinet, including Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, for talks on “the hostages and the strong desire that we both have to see them returned to their families”, and also held talks with Israel’s main opposition leader Yair Lapid.

- Cairo talks -

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

Egypt was urging “both parties to show the necessary flexibility” to make a deal, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Hamas said a delegation led by Khalil al-Hayya, a leading member of the group’s political bureau, was travelling to Cairo on Thursday.

Map of southern Gaza Strip

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.

Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,840 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

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

Former hostage Adina Moshe receives support from a woman, following a conference organised by five women who were abducted by the Palestinian Hamas movement on October 7, 2023 and later released during a seven-day truce

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

Addressing the prime minister, one of the hostages released as part of a temporary truce in November, Adina Moshe, 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.”

- ‘Abysmal conditions’ -

Palestinian riot police stand guard as protesters in Ramallah march against a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Israel and the West Bank

As Israel prepared to press further south, fears have grown 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, according to the United Nations.

“Their living conditions are abysmal,” UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said. “They lack the basic necessities to survive, stalked by hunger, disease and death.

“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.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a press conference in Tel Aviv

Blinken stopped short of calling on Israel not to move on the city, but did voice concern. Any “military operation that Israel undertakes needs to put civilians first and foremost,” he said.

The Gaza war has sparked a surge in violence across the region by Iran-backed groups operating in solidarity with Hamas, drawing retaliatory attacks from Israel and the United States and its allies.

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

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.