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Israel sent ground troops into Rafah on Monday night, seizing the main border crossing between Gaza and Egypt as international mediators struggled to continue talks aimed at ending the conflict.

The Israeli military said it had taken “operational control” of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, at Gaza’s southernmost point, with armour and infantry backed by heavy air strikes.

“This is a precise and limited operation . . . within specific areas of eastern Rafah,” said an Israeli military official.

The offensive came just hours after Hamas announced it had accepted a multiphase ceasefire-for-hostage deal brokered by Egypt, Qatar and the US. It would have brought an initial six-week pause in the fighting in return for the release of several dozen Israeli hostages held by the militant group.

In a statement on Monday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Hamas’s proposal, which he said fell “far from Israel’s requirements”, but said the government’s mediators would engage in further talks “to exhaust the possibility of reaching an agreement under conditions acceptable to Israel”.

Netanyahu had said over the past week that an offensive into Rafah, home to more than 1mn displaced Palestinians, would take place with or without a deal to free Israeli hostages, who were seized by Hamas during its attack on southern Israel on October 7, which triggered the war.

The Israeli military throughout Monday called on civilians sheltering in Rafah’s eastern environs to evacuate the area. The US and the UN have warned about the dire humanitarian consequences of a military assault on such a densely populated area.

Earlier on Monday, Hamas said it had broadly accepted a proposal to free hostages and secure a temporary ceasefire in the seven-month war.

Hamas quoted Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian militant group’s Doha-based political leader, as saying he had informed officials from Qatar and Egypt, which have been mediating between the warring parties alongside the US.

The details of what Hamas had agreed to in the hostage release proposal were not immediately clear, but a diplomat briefed on the talks said the proposal Hamas had accepted was broadly similar to the one put forward by international mediators about two weeks ago.

That proposal included calls for the initial six-week pause in the war during which Hamas would release 33 hostages, including women, children, the elderly and wounded. This would be followed by what mediators hoped would be an extended ceasefire, during which the remaining hostages would be freed. Israel would release Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, allow Gazans to return to their homes in the enclave’s north and enable a surge of humanitarian aid.

Benny Gantz, a centrist minister in the Israeli war cabinet, said Hamas’s response “does not correspond to the dialogue that has taken place so far with the mediators and has significant gaps”.

“Despite this, we continue to turn over every stone and a delegation will go to Cairo”, where negotiations will continue, Gantz said.

Israeli officials say Hamas is holding 132 hostages and believe 37 of them are dead.

Washington was also reviewing Hamas’s response to the proposal and discussing it with partners in the region, said John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council. “We want to get these hostages out, he said. “We want to get a ceasefire in place for six weeks, we want to increase humanitarian assistance.”

Mediators have for months been facilitating indirect talks between Israel and Hamas for a second round of hostage-for-prisoner swaps, following one in November. The talks had been stalled as Hamas demanded that any agreement end with a permanent ceasefire and the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Hamas seized about 250 hostages during its October 7 attack, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive on Gaza has killed more than 34,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials.

Reporting by Mehul Srivastava and Neri Zilber in Tel Aviv, Andrew England in London, Raya Jalabi in Beirut, Mai Khaled and Heba Saleh in Cairo and Felicia Schwartz in Washington

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