Israel faced growing international pressure on Tuesday to agree to a cease-fire with Hamas, as it prepared for an incursion into the crowded southern Gaza city of Rafah where more than a million Palestinians are trapped.
CIA Director William Burns was due in Cairo Tuesday for a new round of talks on a Qatari-brokered cease-fire proposal that would temporarily halt fighting in exchange for Hamas freeing hostages.
Israeli officials said spy chief David Barnea would also go to Cairo to join the talks.
Burns's planned visit comes after Washington and the United Nations warned Israel against carrying out a ground offensive into Rafah without a plan to protect civilians, who say they have nowhere left to go.
"Wherever we go there's bombing, martyrs and wounded," said Iman Dergham, a displaced Palestinian woman.
After White House talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II on Monday, US President Joe Biden said civilians in Rafah "need to be protected."
"Many people there have been displaced – displaced multiple times, fleeing the violence to the north, and now they're packed into Rafah – exposed and vulnerable," he said.
King Abdullah pushed for a "lasting cease-fire" to end the more than four-month-old war, warning an Israeli attack on Rafah is "certain to produce another humanitarian catastrophe."
China urged Israel to "stop its military operation as soon as possible ... in order to prevent a more serious humanitarian disaster in the Rafah area."
After rejecting Hamas's terms for a truce last week, Israel conducted a predawn raid in Rafah on Monday that freed two hostages and killed around 100 people.
Netanyahu hailed the operation that freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Luis Har, 70, as "perfect," while the Palestinian foreign ministry said the deaths of dozens of Gazans amounted to a "massacre."
The rare rescue mission came hours after the Israel premier spoke with Biden, who reiterated his opposition to a major assault on Rafah.
Netanyahu rebuffed Israel's key ally, insisting that "complete victory" cannot be achieved without the elimination of the militants' last battalions in Rafah.
No safe place
The United States has angered some Middle East allies by repeatedly refusing to back a full cease-fire, with Washington saying it supports Israel's drive to eradicate Hamas and calling for shorter pauses with hostage-prisoner swaps instead.
Biden said Monday his administration was trying to broker a six-week truce but that, while key elements were in place, "gaps" remained.
Rafah has become a last refuge for over half of Gaza's 2.4 million people, who are pressed up against the Egypt border in makeshift camps where they face outbreaks of hepatitis and diarrhea, and a scarcity of food and water.
Some families, already displaced several times, were already starting to dismantle tents and gather their belongings to flee once again.
"We escaped the north with empty hands, then we escaped Khan Yunis with almost empty hands," said one, Ismail Joundiyah.
"We want to be ready this time."
Netanyahu has said Israel will provide "safe passage" to civilians trying to leave, but foreign governments and aid groups – as well as Gazans – questioned where they could go.
"There is no place that is currently safe in Gaza," said United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
The UN's human rights chief Volker Turk warned "an extremely high number of civilians" would likely be killed or injured in a full Israeli incursion into Rafah, which could also spell the end of the "meager" humanitarian aid entering Gaza.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more Gazans are being pushed to the brink of famine, with the territory's entire population in the UN agency's three most severe categories of hunger.
"We're almost out of flour in the north," said a man in north Gaza's Beit Lahia. "We can't even find food and drinks for the children."
Israel's pre-dawn operation Monday to free the two hostages left Rafah with bomb craters and piles of rubble.
Footage released by the Israeli military showed soldiers storming a building and extracting the hostages, who were later described as being in "good and healthy" condition.
A spokesperson for Netanyahu's office said forces were engaged in "a prolonged battle," during which "dozens of Hamas targets were attacked from the air."
International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Karim Khan said he was "deeply concerned by the reported bombardment."
The US State Department also called on Monday for Israel to investigate the "heartbreaking" death of six-year-old Gazan Hind Rajab, whose body was recovered Saturday along with two relatives and two Red Crescent workers who went to find her.
Her family's car came under fire while trying to flee an Israeli advance in Gaza City. She was last heard from in a desperate phone call to the Red Crescent, telling them she was "so scared."
At least 28,473 people, mostly women and children, have died in Israel's relentless bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza, according to the Gazan health ministry.
The war began after Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Militants also took about 250 people hostage, around 130 of whom are still in Gaza, according to Israeli figures. Israel says 29 of the remaining captives are presumed dead.
The Israeli military said Tuesday that three more of its soldiers had been killed in fighting in Gaza, taking its losses to 232 since ground operations began on Oct. 27.
The Israeli army also said it had killed over 30 "terrorists" in Khan Y0unis – the southern Gaza city several kilometers from Rafah, where there has been heavy fighting – and carried out raids on "terrorist infrastructure."