Airstrikes hit a southern Gaza border city crowded with civilians on Thursday, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced a cease-fire proposal by Hamas and signaled that the Israeli military was preparing to move into the area.
The strikes on two houses in Rafah killed and injured multiple people, according to Palestinian news outlets, and heightened fears among the more than one million Palestinians who have sought refuge in the city as Israel’s army has repeatedly warned that it plans to push farther south in its ground invasion.
“There is no place for the people to run to,” said Fathi Abu Snema, a 45-year-old father of five who has been living in a United Nations-run school in Rafah for nearly four months. “Everyone from all other parts of Gaza ended up in Rafah. I don’t know where to go.”
The strikes came a day after Mr. Netanyahu rejected a Hamas proposal that called for Israel to withdraw from Gaza, abide by a long-term cease-fire and free Palestinians held in Israeli jails in exchange for the release of remaining Israelis who were kidnapped during the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack.
Mr. Netanyahu said that Hamas’s demands were “ludicrous” and that accepting them would only invite further attacks on Israel. Asserting that there was “no solution besides total victory,” he said the military had been ordered to prepare to move into Rafah, on Egypt’s border, which he called one of “Hamas’s last remaining strongholds.”
At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, raised concerns about the prospect of an Israeli military incursion into Rafah. “We have yet to see any evidence of serious planning for such an operation,” he said.
Mr. Patel said that to “conduct such an operation right now, with no planning and little thought” would be “a disaster.”
As the United Nations also warned of devastating consequences from an expansion of Israel’s military offensive, Israeli leaders and Hamas officials said on Thursday that they were still open to further negotiations to stop the fighting.
“There is agreement among members of the governing coalition, and particularly among individual members of the government, that we do have to get the hostages back and to make a deal,” Miki Zohar, an Israeli government minister, said in a radio interview on Thursday morning.
“But not at any price,” Mr. Zohar said. “Stopping the war, for example, they won’t agree to.”
Hamas said in a statement that a delegation led by one of its senior officials, Khalil al-Hayya, had arrived in Cairo on Thursday to participate in cease-fire talks with mediators.
Israeli officials have said that they were not prepared to accept another offer that calls for the withdrawal of their forces from Gaza and leaves Hamas in power.
“The total withdrawal of Israeli forces and an end of this war is, of course, not an option,” an Israeli government spokesman, Eylon Levy, said on Thursday. “Hamas was calling for complete capitulation that will leave it free and emboldened to perpetrate another massacre.”
Even so, Israeli leaders concluded that there was still room for discussion if the proposal that Hamas offered this week was in the nature of an opening bid, according to two government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
Nadav Shtrauchler, a political analyst who was once Mr. Netanyahu’s media strategist, said that even though the prime minister had spurned the offer, he left an opening.
“The door has been closed, but the window is still open — not for that deal, which he couldn’t accept, but for a different deal,” Mr. Shtrauchler said.
Aid groups and the United Nations have repeatedly warned that an advance on Rafah would be devastating because the city is now home to more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, many of whom are living in ramshackle tents after moving multiple times in search of safety.
The Israeli military made no formal announcement about the strikes on Thursday and declined to comment on whether they signaled the start of a ground offensive, saying it does not discuss “operational activity.”
A military offensive in Rafah “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare, with untold regional consequences,” the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, told the General Assembly on Wednesday.
Gaza’s health ministry said that more than 100 people had been killed in the territory over the previous 24 hours. More than 27,000 people have been killed in Gaza during the four-month war, health authorities there say. Around 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7, the Israelis say.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, an aid agency, warned that a full-scale Israeli military assault on Rafah and the surrounding area would lead to more civilian deaths and risk halting the trickle of humanitarian aid that is entering Rafah from Egypt.
“An expansion of hostilities could turn Rafah into a zone of bloodshed and destruction that people won’t be able to escape,” said Angelita Caredda, the Middle East and North Africa regional director. “Conditions in Rafah are already dire.”
Some Israeli and American officials have questioned how close Israel is to achieving its goal of defeating Hamas.
U.S. intelligence officials told Congress this week that Israel had degraded Hamas’s fighting capabilities but that it was not close to eliminating the group, American officials said. That assessment appeared to contradict Mr. Netanyahu’s statement on Wednesday that victory was “within reach.”
Reporting was contributed by Abu Bakr Bashir, Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong.