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Israel sends troops into Rafah

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Israel has carried out night air strikes on Rafah and said a ceasefire proposal accepted by Hamas fell “far from Israel’s necessary requirement”, as international mediators and officials struggled to continue talks to halt fighting in Gaza.

Israel’s war cabinet voted on Monday to continue the operation in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza it considers to be Hamas’s last stronghold, to “exert military pressure on Hamas in order to promote the release of our hostages and the other goals of the war”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the government’s mediators would engage in further talks “to exhaust the possibility of reaching an agreement under conditions acceptable to Israel”. Netanyahu has said he would continue an offensive on the Gazan city with or without a deal to free dozens of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

The Israel Defense Forces said on Monday night it was “conducting targeted strikes against Hamas terror targets in eastern Rafah in southern Gaza”.

Benny Gantz, a centrist minister in the Israeli war cabinet, said Hamas’s response “does not correspond to the dialogue that has taken place so far with the mediators and has significant gaps”.

“Despite this, we continue to turn over every stone and a delegation will go to Cairo”, where mediation is taking place, Gantz said.

Earlier on Monday, Hamas said it had broadly accepted a proposal to free hostages and secure a temporary ceasefire in the seven-month war.

Hamas quoted Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian militant group’s Doha-based political leader, as saying he had informed officials from Qatar and Egypt, which have been mediating between the warring parties alongside the US.

Hamas released the statement hours after Israel ordered the evacuation of eastern parts of Rafah, seemingly signalling that it was moving closer to a long-expected offensive on the city. The US and the UN have warned about the dire humanitarian consequences of a military assault on such a densely populated area.

The details of what Hamas had agreed to in the hostage release proposal were not immediately clear, but a diplomat briefed on the talks said the proposal Hamas had accepted was broadly similar to the one put forward by international mediators about two weeks ago.

That proposal included calls for an initial six-week pause in the war during which Hamas would release 33 hostages, including women, children, the elderly and wounded. This would be followed by what mediators hoped would be an extended ceasefire, during which the remaining hostages would be freed. Israel would release Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, allow Gazans to return to their homes in the enclave’s north and enable a surge of humanitarian aid.

Israeli officials say Hamas is holding 132 hostages and believe 37 of them are dead.

Washington was also reviewing Hamas’s response to the proposal and discussing it with partners in the region, said John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council. “We want to get these hostages out, he said. “We want to get a ceasefire in place for six weeks, we want to increase humanitarian assistance.”

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition ally, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said on the social media platform X that Israel should reject Hamas’s latest move.

Mediators have for months been facilitating indirect talks between Israel and Hamas for a second round of hostage-for-prisoner swaps, following one in November. The talks had been stalled as Hamas demanded that any agreement end with a permanent ceasefire and the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Netanyahu, under pressure from far-right members of his ruling coalition, has repeatedly rejected Hamas’s demands.

Hamas seized about 250 hostages during its October 7 attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive on Gaza has killed more than 34,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials.

Reporting by Mehul Srivastava and Neri Zilber in Tel Aviv, Andrew England in London, Raya Jalabi in Beirut, Mai Khaled and Heba Saleh in Cairo and Felicia Schwartz in Washington

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