Facing Global Outrage, Netanyahu Calls Civilian Deaths in Rafah Strike ‘Tragic

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With international condemnation mounting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on Monday that the killing of dozens of people a day earlier at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah was “a tragic accident,” but gave no sign of curbing the Israeli offensive in the southern Gaza city.

The deadly fire that tore through the encampment on Sunday after an airstrike came at a particularly delicate time for Israel, just days after the International Court of Justice appeared to order the country’s military to halt its offensive in Rafah and as diplomats were aiming to restart negotiations for a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas.

The Israel military said that the target of the strike in Rafah on Sunday was a Hamas compound, and that “precise munitions” had been used to target a commander and another senior militant official there.

But at least 45 people, including children, were killed by the blast and by the fires it set off, according to the Gaza health ministry. The ministry said that 249 people were wounded.

In a speech to the Israeli Parliament on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu said the military had sought to protect noncombatants, by issuing evacuation orders, adding that about a million civilians had left Rafah ahead of, or during, the offensive. “Despite our supreme effort not to harm uninvolved civilians,” he said, “a tragic accident occurred to our regret last night.”

He accused Hamas of hiding among the general population, and said: “For us, every uninvolved civilian who is hurt is a tragedy. For Hamas it’s a strategy. That’s the whole difference.”

As images of the dead and maimed reached screens around the world, the condemnation was instant. The latest opprobrium appeared likely to make it still harder for Israel to continue its campaign against Hamas in Rafah, the southern city to which about a million displaced Gazans have fled.

On Monday, one Israeli ally, President Emmanuel Macron of France, said he was “outraged” by the airstrike in Rafah and declared that these operations “must stop.” He called “for full respect for international law and an immediate cease-fire.”

The Israeli government, which invaded the Gaza Strip after a Hamas-led attack from there killed some 1,200 people in Israel, argues that it has no choice but to move into Rafah if it wants to wipe out the militants. The city, the Israelis say, is a stronghold from which Hamas fighters earlier on Sunday fired rockets deep into central Israel for the first time in months.

But with Rafah harboring displaced Gazans forced into the city by earlier fighting in the north, world leaders have warned of the dangers of a major military operation there.

The deaths on Sunday appeared to be precisely what those urging Israel to tread carefully had worried about.

Bilal al-Sapti, 30, a construction worker in Rafah, said he had seen charred bodies in the wreckage of the camp and heard people screaming as firefighters tried to put out the flames. “The fire was very strong and was all over the camp,” he said.

Dr. Marwan al-Hams, who was at the Tal Al Sultan Health Center, where many of the casualties first arrived, said that a majority of the dead and injured he had seen were women and children. “Many of the dead bodies were severely burned, had amputated limbs and were torn to pieces,” he said.

Hamas, in a statement, described the Israeli strike on Rafah as “a horrific war crime” and demanded the “immediate and urgent implementation” of the World Court’s decision. The group did not refer to the Israeli military’s assertions that two Hamas officials had been killed in the strike.

The Israeli military said it had taken a number of steps before the strike to reduce the risk of harm to civilians, including conducting aerial surveillance and using munitions characterized as precise. “Based on these measures, it was assessed that there would be no expected harm to uninvolved civilians,” it said.

But an Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said on Monday that an initial investigation by the military had concluded that the strike, or shrapnel from it, may have unexpectedly ignited a flammable substance at the camp. Eyewitnesses described intense fires in the aftermath of the strike.

Military drone footage of the attack reviewed by The New York Times showed the munition striking an area containing several large cabinlike structures and parked cars.

Two Israeli officials said that the strike had taken place outside of a designated humanitarian zone created to offer safe refuge to evacuees. The officials produced a map showing what it said was the location of the strike in relation to the zone.

The military identified the two targets of the strike as the commander of Hamas’s leadership in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Yassin Rabi, and a senior official in the same wing of the group, Khaled Nagar.

In an ambiguously worded order, the International Court of Justice, an arm of the United Nations which is hearing arguments pertaining to accusations that Israel has committed genocide in Gaza, called on Israel to immediately halt any actions in Rafah that “may inflict upon the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that would bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Israeli officials have argued that the 13-2 ruling allowed it to continue fighting in Rafah because it would not inflict such genocidal conditions. But some of Israel’s allies do not view the order that way. Even before the latest civilian deaths, Germany’s vice chancellor, Robert Habeck, said the offensive in Rafah was “incompatible with international law.”

Late Sunday, Israel’s war cabinet met to discuss the continuing efforts to reach a cease-fire deal that would lead to freedom for the hostages seized during the Oct. 7 attacks, according to an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the talks.

Diplomats are aiming to restart negotiations at some point in the next week, according to three officials briefed on the process. According to the officials, preliminary discussions were held this weekend in Paris.

Reporting was contributed by Error Yazbek, Abu Bakr Bashir, She is Abuheweila, Patrick Kingsley, Myra Noveck and Johnatan Reiss.