TEL AVIV — A high-level Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo on Saturday as months of stop-start talks for a cease-fire and hostage release deal appear to have reached a crucial stage, even as Israel continued to threaten a ground offensive in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah that United Nations officials have warned will worsen the civilian death toll and deepen the enclave’s humanitarian crisis.

American and Egyptian negotiators indicated there had been signs of compromise in recent days. Hamas said Friday that its leaders had studied the most recent proposals with a “positive spirit,” and “we are going to Cairo in the same spirit to reach an agreement.”

The progress, however, remains short of a deal. An Israeli official told NBC News on Saturday there was “still a ways to go” and to “wait before celebrating.”

“Israel will under no circumstances agree to the end of the war as part of an agreement to release our hostages,” a separate Israeli official said in a statement. The Israeli military, they added, “will enter Rafah and destroy the remaining Hamas battalions there — whether or not there will be a temporary pause for the release of our hostages.”

The United Nations humanitarian aid agency warned that hundreds of thousands of people would be “at imminent risk of death” if Israel carries out a military offensive on Rafah.

An assault on the city on the border with Egypt would cause further significant disruption in the delivery of aid across the enclave, as the city remains the primary entry point for food, water, health, sanitation, hygiene and other critical support for Palestinians in Gaza.

While Hamas’ statement Friday said it was “determined to develop an agreement,” it did not appear to have changed its demands for a complete end to the fighting in Gaza, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the enclave and an allowance for displaced people to return to their homes.

Israel has never indicated it would completely withdraw its troops from the enclave, but in a significant softening of its position, senior U.S. administration officials and Arab diplomats said Monday that it had for the first time indicated it would accept a sustained cease-fire lasting more than six weeks, as the U.S. has been proposing.

The stakes in the negotiations were made clear when Cindy McCain, the executive director of the World Food Programme, said Friday that northern Gaza is now in a “full-blown famine” after almost seven months of war and severe Israeli restrictions on food deliveries to the strip.

McCain described the situation as a “horror.” “There is full-blown famine in the north, and it’s moving its way south,” she said in an interview that is set to air Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

Her comments came after a U.S. official confirmed to NBC News that the Israeli military has informed the Biden administration of its plan to begin removing Palestinians from Rafah ahead of an invasion.

The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly about the news, which was first reported by Politico, said the Israelis did not say whether the plan was final or when an invasion would take place.

President Joe Biden has repeatedly reiterated American opposition to an invasion of the city, and earlier this week U.S. officials said they did not believe Israel was ready to launch a full ground invasion.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to carry out a military assault on Rafah, which he has repeatedly said is a necessary step to toppling Hamas.

The Biden administration has said there could be consequences for Israel should it move forward with the operation without a credible plan to safeguard civilians in the city, which had a prewar population of around 250,000 and has swelled to more than 1 million since the start of the war as displaced people sought shelter there.

The war was sparked when Hamas launched multipronged attacks on Israel that left 1,200 dead and saw more than 240 people taken hostage. While around 100 were freed in an exchange for Palestinian prisoners in late November, Israeli officials say about 130 remain in captivity, although at least 34 have died.

Health officials in Gaza say more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the conflict, tens of thousands more injured and hundreds of thousands brought to the brink of starvation — a toll that is set to worsen should Israel push ahead with an invasion of Rafah.

In a post on X on Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said the WHO was “deeply concerned that a full-scale military operation in Rafah, Gaza, could lead to a bloodbath, and further weaken an already broken health system.”

And after protests against Israel’s actions rocked college campuses across the U.S. this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who recently returned from his seventh trip to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war started in October, reiterated the American position on the invasion on Friday.

Speaking at the Sedona Forum, an event in Arizona hosted by the McCain Institute, Blinken said that without a credible plan, the U.S. “can’t support a major military operation going into Rafah because the damage it would do is beyond what’s acceptable.”

Before he left the Middle East on Wednesday, Blinken ramped up pressure on Hamas to accept a deal, saying Israel had made “very important” compromises. “There’s no time for further haggling. The deal is there,” he said.

Raf Sanchez reported from Tel Aviv and Henry Austin from London.


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