PHOTO SHOWS a Palestinian looking at the site of an Israeli strike on a mosque, amid the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Feb. 12, 2024. — REUTERS

CAIRO/JERUSALEM — Israel will press ahead with an offensive against Hamas in Rafah, the last refuge for displaced Palestinians in southern Gaza, after allowing civilians to vacate the area, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday.

The Israeli leader, who is under growing international pressure to hold off on the planned assault, gave no indication as to when the offensive might take place or where the hundreds of thousands of people now crammed into Rafah might go.

His comments came a day after talks in Cairo on a possible ceasefire and the handover of hostages held by Hamas ended inconclusively, stoking fears among the displaced Palestinians that Israel would soon storm Rafah, which abuts Egypt.

“We will fight until complete victory, and this includes a powerful action in Rafah as well, after we allow the civilian population to leave the battle zones,” Mr. Netanyahu said on his Telegram account.

Earlier, Mr. Netanyahu’s office said Hamas had presented no new offer for a hostage deal in the Cairo talks and that Israel would not accept the militant group’s “ludicrous demands.”

“A change in Hamas’ positions will make it possible to move forward in the negotiations,” it said.

Relatives of Israeli hostages held by Hamas said they would barricade the Israeli defense headquarters on Wednesday in protest at what they said was a scandalous decision by Israel not to send negotiators to the next session of the Cairo talks.

The move “amounts to a death sentence” for the 134 hostages in Hamas’ tunnels, the group said, in a sign of growing domestic dissent in Israel after four months of the Gaza war.

The Israeli military says it wants to flush out Islamist militants from hideouts in Rafah and free hostages being held there after the Hamas rampage in Israel on Oct. 7, but has given no details of a proposed plan to evacuate civilians.

“We are now counting down the days before Israel sends in tanks. We hope they don’t but who can prevent them?” Said Jaber, a Gaza businessman who is sheltering in Rafah with his family, told Reuters via a chat app.

As night fell on Wednesday, more than 2,000 Palestinians who had been sheltering in Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in southern Gaza arrived in Rafah after being ordered to evacuate by the Israeli army, residents and some witnesses said.

Richard Peeperkorn, the World Health Organization representative for Gaza and the West Bank, said an assault on Rafah would be “an unfathomable catastrophe… and would even further expand the humanitarian disaster beyond imagination.”

French President Emmanuel Macron raised similar concerns in a phone call on Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu, the president’s office said, saying further forced displacements of people could also bring regional escalation. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said before talks with Mr. Netanyahu that people in Rafah with nowhere to go “cannot simply vanish into thin air.”

Israel says it takes steps to minimize civilian casualties and accuses Hamas fighters of hiding among civilians, including in hospitals and shelters — something the militant group denies.

On Wednesday Israel said it had approved the use of Starlink services — the satellite network of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk — to help communications at a field hospital in Gaza and in Israel itself for the first time.

Israeli forces shelled eastern areas of Rafah overnight, and pounded several areas of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, residents said.

The health ministry in the Hamas-governed enclave said Israeli forces were continuing to isolate the two main hospitals in Khan Younis, and that sniper fire at Nasser Hospital had killed and wounded many people in recent days.

An Israeli airstrike on a house in Al-Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza killed six people, health officials said.

At least 28,576 Palestinians have been killed, including 103 in the past 24 hours, and 68,291 wounded in Israeli strikes on Gaza since Oct.7, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

Many other people are believed to be buried under rubble of destroyed buildings across the densely populated Gaza Strip, much of which is in ruins. Supplies of food, water and other essentials are running out and diseases are spreading.

At least 1,200 Israelis were killed and around 250 were taken hostage in the Hamas raid on southern Israel on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel has vowed to fight on until it eradicates Hamas and has made the return of the last hostages a priority. Hamas says Israel must commit to ending the war and withdrawing from Gaza.

Diplomacy is focused not just on halting the war and securing the hostages’ release but also on preventing the conflict from spreading across the region.

The armed Lebanese group Hezbollah, which backs the Palestinians, has frequently fired across the border into northern Israel since the war began in Gaza.

In the latest clashes on Wednesday, Israel said it had carried out retaliatory strikes on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon after rocket attacks which it said had killed an Israeli female soldier, struck a military base and wounded several other people.

A woman and her two children were killed in an Israeli strike on the village of al-Sawana, two Lebanese security sources said. Hezbollah said another strike on a separate town killed one of their fighters.

Diplomatic efforts continued on Wednesday, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan making his first visit to Egypt in over a decade. He said Turkey stood ready for cooperation with Egypt to rebuild Gaza after the war. — Reuters