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Hamas accepts Gaza cease-fire; Israel says it will continue talks but launches strikes in Rafah

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel began striking targets in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, its leaders said Monday, hours after Hamas announced it had accepted an Egyptian-Qatari cease-fire proposal. Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would send negotiators to continue talks on the deal.

The high-stakes diplomatic moves and military brinkmanship left a glimmer of hope alive — but only barely — for an accord that could bring at least a pause in the 7-month-old war that has devastated the Gaza Strip. Hanging over the wrangling was the threat of an all-out Israeli assault on Rafah, a move that the United States strongly opposes and that aid groups warn will be disastrous for some 1.4 million Palestinians taking refuge there.

Hamas’s abrupt acceptance of the cease-fire deal came hours after Israel ordered an evacuation of Palestinians from eastern neighborhoods of Rafah, signaling an invasion was imminent.

Netanyahu’s office said that the proposal Hamas accepted was “far from Israel’s essential demands,” but that it would nonetheless send negotiators to continue talks on a deal.

At the same time, the Israeli military said it was conducting “targeted strikes” against Hamas in eastern Rafah. The nature of the strikes was not immediately known, but the move may aim to keep the pressure of the Rafah threat on as talks continue.

President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reiterated U.S. concerns about an invasion of Rafah, telling him a cease-fire was the best way to protect the lives of Israeli hostages, according to a National Security Council spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the call before an official White House statement was released.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said American officials were reviewing the Hamas response “and discussing it with our partners in the region.” An American official said the U.S. was examining whether Hamas agreed to a version of the deal that had been signed off on by Israel and international negotiators or something else.

Details of the proposal have not been released. Touring the region last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had pressed Hamas to take the deal, and Egyptian officials said it called for a cease-fire of multiple stages starting with a limited hostage release and partial Israeli troop pullbacks within Gaza. The two sides would also negotiate a “permanent calm” that would lead to a full hostage release and greater Israeli withdrawal out of the territory, they said.

Hamas had been seeking clearer guarantees for its key demand of an end to the war and complete Israeli withdrawal in return for the release of all its hostages, according to Egyptian officials. It was not immediately known if any changes were made.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have repeatedly rejected that trade-off, vowing to keep up their campaign until Hamas is destroyed after its Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war.

Israel says Rafah is the last significant Hamas stronghold in Gaza, and Netanyahu said Monday that the offensive against the town was vital to ensuring the militants can’t rebuild their military capabilities.

But he faces strong American opposition. After the Israeli evacuation order was issued, Miller said the U.S. has not seen a credible and implementable plan to protect Palestinian civilians. “We cannot support an operation in Rafah as it is currently envisioned,” he said.

The looming operation has raised global alarm. Aid agencies have warned that an offensive will bring a surge of more civilian deaths in an Israeli campaign that has already killed 34,000 people and devastated the territory. It could also wreck the humanitarian aid operation based out of Rafah that is keeping Palestinians across the Gaza Strip alive, they say.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk on Monday called the evacuation order “inhumane.”

“Gazans continue to be hit with bombs, disease, and even famine. And today, they have been told that they must relocate yet again,” he said. “It will only expose them to more danger and misery.

Israeli military leaflets were dropped ordering evacuation from eastern neighborhoods of Rafah, warning that an attack was imminent and anyone who stays “puts themselves and their family members in danger.” Text messages and radio broadcasts repeated the message.

The military told people to move to an Israel-declared humanitarian zone called Muwasi, a makeshift camp on the coast. It said Israel has expanded the size of the zone and that it included tents, food, water and field hospitals.

It wasn’t immediately clear, however, if that was already in place.

Around 450,000 displaced Palestinians already are sheltering in Muwasi. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said it has been providing them with aid. But conditions are squalid, with few bathrooms or sanitation facilities in the largely rural area, forcing families to dig private latrines.

The evacuation order left Palestinians in Rafah wrestling with having to uproot their families once again for an unknown fate, exhausted after months living in sprawling tent camps or crammed into schools or other shelters in and around the city.

Mohammed Jindiyah said that at the beginning of the war, he had tried to hold out in his home in northern Gaza under heavy bombardment before fleeing to Rafah.

He is complying with Israel’s evacuation order this time, but was unsure now whether to move to Muwasi or another town in central Gaza.

“We are 12 families, and we don’t know where to go. There is no safe area in Gaza,” he said.

Sahar Abu Nahel, who fled to Rafah with 20 family members, including her children and grandchildren, wiped tears from her cheeks, despairing at a new move.

“I have no money or anything. I am seriously tired, as are the children,” she said. “Maybe it’s more honorable for us to die. We are being humiliated.”

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, condemned the “forced, unlawful” evacuation order and the idea that people should go to Muwasi.

“The area is already overstretched and devoid of vital services,” Egeland said. He said that an Israeli assault could lead to “the deadliest phase of this war.”

Israel’s bombardment and ground offensives in Gaza have killed more than 34,700 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them children and women, according to Gaza health officials. The tally doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants. More than 80% of the population of 2.3 million have been driven from their homes, and hundreds of thousands in the north are on the brink of famine, according to the U.N.

Tensions escalated Sunday when Hamas fired rockets at Israeli troops positioned on the border with Gaza near Israel’s main crossing for delivering humanitarian aid, killing four soldiers. Israel shuttered the crossing.

Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes on Rafah killed 22 people, including children and two infants.

The war was sparked by the unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel in which Hamas and other militants killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages. After exchanges during a November cease-fire, Hamas is believed to still hold about 100 Israelis as well the bodies of around 30 others.

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Mroue reported from Beirut. Samy Magdy in Cairo and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.

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