Israel rejects Gaza ceasefire plan, Hamas says Netanyahu's goal is genocide
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday dismissed Hamas's demand for a ceasefire and ordered troops to prepare to move on the city of Rafah in Gaza's far south, where more than one million Palestinians have sought refuge.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Tel Aviv hours after meeting Netanyahu, said he still saw "space for agreement to be reached" and that he had warned the Israeli leader against actions and talk that "inflame tensions".
Netanyahu had told a televised briefing that he had ordered troops to "prepare to operate" in Rafah and that a "total victory" by Israel over Hamas was just months away.
The Israeli leader said that the Palestinian militant group's "bizarre demands" for a ceasefire would not lead to the return of hostages, charging that "it will only invite another massacre".
In Beirut, a senior Hamas official responded, saying Netanyahu's "insistence on continuing the aggression totally confirms that the goal... is genocide against the Palestinian people".
The official, Osama Hamdan, urged "all resistance factions... to continue the fight" and to be cautious of Israeli "treachery during the final quarter-hour of this confrontation".
One of the hostages released as part of a temporary ceasefire deal brokered in November also put pressure on the Israeli leader.
"Everything is in your hands," Adina Moshe told a news conference in Tel Aviv, addressing Netanyahu.
"You're the one. 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 said.
Earlier, US envoy Blinken, on his fifth Middle East tour since the war broke out, had expressed hope for a ceasefire and hostage release deal, even as he cautioned that there was "a lot of work to be done."
"But we are very much focused on doing that work and hopefully being able to resume the release of hostages that was interrupted" after a week-long truce in November, Blinken said after meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
An official from mediator Egypt told AFP that "a new round of negotiations" would start on Thursday in Cairo aimed at achieving "calm in the Gaza Strip".
A Hamas source with knowledge of the matter said the Palestinian militant group had agreed to the Cairo talks, with the goal of "a ceasefire, an end to the war and a prisoner exchange deal".
Last week, a Hamas source said the proposed new truce calls for a six-week pause to fighting and a hostage-prisoner exchange, as well as more aid for Gaza, but negotiations have continued since.
Blinken also made a new plea for more aid into Gaza, whose 2.4 million people have endured a crippling siege and severe shortages of clean water, food, fuel and medical supplies.
"We all have an obligation to do everything possible to get the necessary assistance to those who so desperately need it," Blinken said, "and the steps that are being taken -- additional steps that need to be taken -- are the focus of my own meetings here."
The US led several states that recently cut funding to the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, which has distributed vital aid in Gaza during the Israeli onslaught.
Blinken also travelled to the occupied West Bank where he met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
For now, the war which entered its fifth month on Wednesday raged on unabated in Gaza, where the health ministry said at least 123 people were killed in the past 24 hours and AFP journalists reported more heavy bombing of southern cities.
The health ministry said that two Palestinians had been killed when Israeli troops surrounded the house of a wanted man in Nur Shams camp near Tulkarem in northern occupied West Bank.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was "alarmed" by reports Israeli forces would push on into Rafah, which is crammed with more than half of Gaza's population.
"Such an action would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences," Guterres said.
Israel's latest assault on Gaza followed Hamas's surprise attack on Israel on 7 October, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
Militants also seized around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.
Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas 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.
Dana Ahmed, 40, who was displaced from Gaza City with her three children and now lives in a tent in Rafah, said she spent a sleepless night as Israeli fighter jets roared through the sky and explosions shook the ground.
"I cannot imagine what will happen to us," she said. "Where will we go now? The situation is catastrophic. I feel like I am living a horror movie."