Battles rage in Rafah after US says Gaza truce still possible

3 min 30Approximate reading time

Israeli helicopters struck Gaza's Rafah Thursday, residents said, with Hamas militants reporting street battles in the southern city after top US diplomat Antony Blinken said a truce was still possible.

But the war raged on, and tensions soared on Israel's northern border with more attacks by Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah forces targeting military positions.

Israel, which has traded near-daily fire with Hamas ally Hezbollah since the Gaza war began, said it would respond "with force".

Israeli ground forces have been operating in Rafah since early May, despite widespread alarm over the fate of Palestinian civilians there, and a ruling by the International Court of Justice later that month.

Western areas of Rafah came under heavy fire on Thursday from the air, sea and land, residents said.

"There was very intense fire from warplanes, Apaches (helicopters) and quadcopters, in addition to Israeli artillery and military battle ships, all of which were striking the area west of Rafah," one told AFP.

Hamas said its fighters were battling Israeli troops on the streets in the city, near the besieged Gaza Strip's border with Egypt.

The war began after Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized 251 hostages. Of these, 116 remain in Gaza although the army says 41 are dead.

Israel's retaliatory military offensive has left at least 37,232 people dead in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-ruled territory's health ministry.

The latest toll includes at least 30 more deaths over the previous day, it said.

- Ceasefire push -

Efforts to reach a truce stalled when Israel began ground operations in Rafah, but US President Joe Biden in late May launched a new effort to secure a deal.

On Monday the UN Security Council adopted a US-drafted resolution supporting the plan, and on Thursday German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said G7 leaders, meeting in Italy, "call on Hamas in particular to give the necessary consent".

Blinken, in Doha on Wednesday to promote Biden's ceasefire roadmap, said Washington would work with regional partners to "close the deal".

Hamas responded to mediators Qatar and Egypt late Tuesday. Blinken said some of its proposed amendments "are workable and some are not".

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said the group sought "a permanent ceasefire and complete withdrawal" of Israeli troops from Gaza, demands repeatedly rejected by Israel.

The plan includes a six-week ceasefire, a hostage-prisoner exchange and Gaza reconstruction.

It would be the first truce since a week-long November pause in fighting saw hostages freed and Palestinians released from Israeli jails.

Blinken said Israel was behind the plan, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has far-right members strongly opposed to the deal, has not publicly endorsed it.

Blinken expressed hopes that an agreement could be reached.

"We have to see... over the course of the coming days whether those gaps are bridgeable," he said.

The war has led to widespread destruction, with hospitals out of service and the UN warning of famine.

A UN investigation concluded Wednesday that Israel had committed crimes against humanity during the war, while Israeli and Palestinian armed groups had both committed war crimes.

The World Health Organization said more than 8,000 children aged under five have been treated for acute malnutrition in Gaza, where only two stabilisation centres for severely malnourished patients currently operate.

"Despite reports of increased delivery of food, there is currently no evidence that those who need it most are receiving sufficient quantity and quality of food," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

- Regional 'danger' -

In Jerusalem, a student-led protest near parliament urged the Netanyahu government to secure a hostage release deal.

"Ceasefire now," said a banner raised by demonstrators, while others marched with portraits of some of the remaining hostages.

Some Gazans have called on Hamas to do more to secure an agreement.

"Hamas does not see that we are tired, we are dead, we are destroyed," said a man called Abu Shaker.

"What are you waiting for? The war must end at any cost."

Israel's military on Thursday said troops carried out "targeted operations in the area of Rafah", where they found weapons and killed several militants "in close-quarters encounters".

More than 10 militants were killed in central Gaza, it said.

An AFP reporter reported overnight strikes and shelling elsewhere in the coastal territory.

Gaza's civil defence agency said three bodies were recovered from a home in Nuseirat, central Gaza, after an Israeli strike.

Fallout from the Gaza war is regularly felt on the Israeli-Lebanon frontier, where deadly cross-border exchanges have escalated.

Hezbollah on both Wednesday and Thursday said it attacked military targets in Israel with barrages of rockets and drones, in retaliation for an Israeli strike that killed one of its commanders.

The Israeli military said most launches had been intercepted while others ignited fires.

Government spokesman David Mencer told a press briefing that "Israel will respond with force to all aggressions by Hezbollah".

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, speaking during a visit to Baghdad by Iran's acting foreign minister, said the potential "expansion of the war is a danger, not only for Lebanon but for the entire region".