TEL AVIV (Agencies): Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed troops to prepare for a potential incursion into the densely populated Gazan city of Rafah. The order comes as a new round of ceasefire talks with Hamas is set to commence in Cairo on Thursday.

Netanyahu’s announcement followed his rejection of Hamas’s response to a ceasefire proposal, which has been the focus of recent intense diplomatic efforts. Despite this, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is currently visiting the region, expressed optimism, stating that he still sees “space for agreement to be reached”.

Meanwhile, concerns are escalating for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians seeking refuge in Rafah along the Egyptian border. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that a military push into the city could drastically worsen the existing humanitarian crisis.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Netanyahu stated that he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in the city, adding that “total victory” over Hamas was just months away. He further commented on the ceasefire proposal, stating that “giving in to the bizarre demands of Hamas that we have just heard will… only invite another massacre.”

Blinken, who is in the region to advocate for a truce, told reporters in Tel Aviv that Hamas’s counter-proposal at least provides an opportunity “to pursue negotiations”. He said, “While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached, and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there.”

Since October 7, the Lebanese-Israeli border has witnessed near-daily exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah, a Hamas ally backed by Iran. Comfort Ero, president of the International Crisis Group, warned on Wednesday that the hostilities in the region increase the likelihood of the situation escalating. She told AFP in Washington, “I think the big three — Iran, Israel and the US — do not want to see escalation. But we are also seeing that every day we’re one step closer to a major miscalculation.”

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