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Netanyahu acknowledges 'tragic mistake' after Israeli strike kills 45 in Gaza's Rafah amid global outcry

Israel launched a 'precise airstrike' on Sunday night targeting two militants of Hamas, but it set fire to a tent camp and killed 45 Palestinians who were sleeping in Rafah. Israel promised an investigation into the matter after a new wave of international criticism.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Jerusalem Published on: May 28, 2024 6:56 IST
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Image Source : REUTERS Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said that an Israeli strike in the southern city of Rafah that set fire to a tent camp, killing at least 45 Palestinians and prompting an international outcry, was a "tragic mistake" not intended to cause civilian casualties and the incident will be investigated. Palestinian families rushed to hospitals to prepare their dead for burial after a strike late on Sunday night set tents and rickety metal shelters ablaze.

Israel has faced surging international criticism over its war with Hamas, with even some of its closest allies, particularly the United States, expressing outrage at civilian deaths. Following the Israeli strike on Sunday, global leaders across the world urged the implementation of a World Court order that ordered Israel to halt its assault.

Netanyahu said the strike did not intend to cause civilian casualties and will be investigated, as he resisted international pressure, claiming that the Israeli government is doing everything to secure the release of hostages and limit civilian harm. "In Rafah, we already evacuated about 1 million non-combatant residents and despite our utmost effort not to harm non-combatants, something unfortunately went tragically wrong," he said in a speech in parliament that was interrupted by shouting from opposition lawmakers.

Israel's military had earlier said that it launched an investigation into civilian deaths after it struck a Hamas installation and killed two senior militants. The attack helped push the overall Palestinian death count in the war above 36,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

One of the deadliest attacks in weeks

Sunday night's attack by Israel was seemingly one of the deadliest strikes by the military in weeks. Survivors said families were preparing to sleep when the strike hit the Tel Al-Sultan neighbourhood where thousands were sheltering after Israeli forces began a ground offensive in the east of Rafah over two weeks ago.

"There was nothing unusual, then we heard a very loud noise, and fire erupted around us... All the children started screaming... The sound was terrifying; we felt like the metal was about to collapse on us, and shrapnel fell into the rooms," said Umm Mohamed Al-Attar, a Palestinian mother. At least 45 people were killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service. The ministry said the dead included at least 12 women, eight children and three older adults, with another three bodies burned beyond recognition.

Medics later said an Israeli airstrike on Monday on a house in Rafah had killed seven Palestinians, with several others wounded. Israel's military said Sunday's strike, based on "precise intelligence", had eliminated Hamas' chief of staff for the second and larger Palestinian territory, the West Bank, plus another official behind deadly attacks on Israelis.

International condemnation of Israeli airstrike

The strike brought a new wave of condemnation from global leaders. The Biden administration in the United States told Israel to take every precaution to protect civilians, even though it stopped short of condemning the strike targeting Hamas. "Israel has a right to go after Hamas, and we understand this strike killed two senior Hamas terrorists who are responsible for attacks against Israeli civilians...But as we’ve been clear, Israel must take every precaution possible to protect civilians," said a US National Security Council spokesperson.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "outraged" over Israel's latest attacks. "These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians," he said. Canada's government said it was "horrified" by the deadly airstrike in Rafah, and called for an immediate ceasefire while promising more visas for Gazans.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the International Court of Justice ruling must be respected. Egypt's Foreign Ministry called it a “new and blatant violation of the rules of humanitarian international law.” Jordan's Foreign Ministry called it a "war crime" and Qatar said the strike could complicate ceasefire talks, which appear to be restarting after a period of stalled negotiations.

Israel has kept up its offensive despite a ruling by the top UN court on Friday ordering it to stop, saying the court's ruling grants it some scope for military action there. The court also reiterated calls for the immediate and unconditional release of hostages held in Gaza by Hamas. The strike followed the interception of eight rockets fired towards Israel from the Rafah area in Gaza's southern tip, with Hamas taking responsibility. 

Meanwhile, the Israeli military said it was investigating reports of an exchange of fire between Israeli and Egyptian soldiers close to the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Egypt's military spokesperson said that the shooting near the Rafah crossing led to the killing of one person and authorities were investigating.

Most have fled once again since Israel launched what it called a limited incursion there earlier this month. Hundreds of thousands are packed into squalid tent camps in and around the city. Netanyahu has insisted that Israel must destroy what he calls Hamas' last remaining battalions in Rafah. 

(with inputs from agencies)

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