Israeli planes continue to bomb Rafah city, in southern Gaza Strip. (File photo: Al Jazeera)
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, Reuters reported.
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.
An Israeli operation in Rafah without due consideration for the plight of civilians would be “a disaster”, said White House spokesperson, John Kirby, adding “we would not support it”.
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?”
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.”
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.
Despite Israel’s rejection of the Hamas proposal, more talks are planned. US 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. 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 US on Thursday afternoon.
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 US 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.