Israel Turns Focus of Gaza Attack to Rafah as Hamas Weighs Ceasefire Proposal

REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A man assists a Palestinian woman in a wheelchair, at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, Egypt, February 1, 2024.

JERUSALEM/DOHA, Feb 2 (Reuters) – Israel prepared to advance its war on Gaza farther south, close to the Egyptian border, after claiming to have dismantled Hamas in Khan Younis, as diplomatic efforts in pursuit of a ceasefire accelerated.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Thursday that success in the fight against the Palestinian militants in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, where Israel launched a major ground attack last week, meant its forces could advance to Rafah on the enclave’s southern border.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are sheltering in this area, mainly cold and hungry in makeshift tents and public buildings.

“We are achieving our missions in Khan Younis, and we will also reach Rafah and eliminate terror elements that threaten us,” Gallant said in a statement.

At the same time, Qatari and Egyptian mediators hoped for a positive response from Hamas, which runs Gaza, to the first concrete proposal for an extended halt to fighting, agreed with Israel and the U.S. at talks in Paris last week.

A Palestinian official close to the negotiations told Reuters the text envisages a first phase of 40 days, during which fighting would cease while Hamas freed remaining civilians among the more than 100 hostages it still holds. Further phases would see the handover of Israeli soldiers and bodies of dead hostages.

Such a long pause would be a first since Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, precipitating an Israeli offensive that has laid waste to much of Gaza.

Health officials in the enclave said on Thursday the confirmed Palestinian death toll had risen above 27,000, with thousands more dead still lying under the rubble.


A Palestinian official said Hamas was unlikely to reject the proposal outright, but would demand guarantees that fighting would not resume, something Israel has not agreed to.

There was brief elation in Gaza on Thursday after remarks by a Qatari spokesman at Johns Hopkins University in Washington sparked ceasefire hopes – and a drop in the price of crude oil.

But Qatari officials in the capital Doha and Taher Al-Nono, media adviser to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, said the group had not responded yet.

Gaza residents said Israeli forces pounded areas around hospitals in Khan Younis, and stepped up attacks close to Rafah. Combat has also surged in recent days in northern areas around Gaza City that Israel claimed to have subdued weeks ago.

Osama Ahmed, 49, a father of five from Gaza City now sheltering in western Khan Younis, said there had been fierce resistance in the city, and relentless bombardment from air, ground and sea as Israeli tanks advanced.

“All we want is a ceasefire now,” he told Reuters by phone.

An air strike on a house in Khan Younis wounded 13 people on Thursday, according to hospital officials.

Appeals to Israel from its main ally, the United States, show little sign of having succeeded in easing the plight of Gaza’s civilians.

Washington is stepping up indirect pressure, however.

U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order that aims to punish Jewish settlers who attack Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in an surge of violence triggered by the war in Gaza.

Biden is also under pressure to respond to the killing of three U.S. soldiers by a drone in Jordan last week, the first U.S. deaths in an escalation of violence across the Middle East since Israel’s war in Gaza began in October.

The United States, which has said it does not want to ignite a wider war, believes the drone, which also wounded more than 40 people, was made by Iran, four U.S. officials told Reuters.

CBS News reported on Thursday that targets for U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria in response to the killings include “Iranian personnel and facilities,” citing American officials.

The U.S. is continuing its strikes with allies against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen, which has attacked shipping in the Red Sea in what it says is solidarity with Gaza.

The U.S. military said it had hit up to 10 drones in Yemen being prepared for launch, while a U.S. Navy ship downed three Iranian-made drones and a Houthi anti-ship missile