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News / Nation & World

Israeli airstrike on Rafah death toll rises to 45

PM Netanyahu says ‘tragic mistake’ made, declares investigation

By MELANIE LIDMAN, TIA GOLDENBERG and SAMY MAGDY, Associated Press
Published: May 27, 2024, 4:56pm

TEL AVIV, Israel — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that a “tragic mistake” was made in an Israeli strike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah that set fire to a camp housing displaced Palestinians and, according to local officials, killed at least 45 people.

The strike only added to the surging international criticism Israel has faced over its war with Hamas, with even its closest allies expressing outrage at civilian deaths. Israel insists it adheres to international law even as it faces scrutiny in the world’s top courts, one of which last week demanded that it halt the offensive in Rafah.

Netanyahu did not elaborate on the error. Israel’s military initially said it had carried out a precise airstrike on a Hamas compound, killing two senior militants. As details of the strike and fire emerged, the military said it had opened an investigation into the deaths of civilians.

Sunday night’s attack, which appeared to be one of the war’s deadliest, helped push the overall Palestinian death toll in the war above 36,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between fighters and noncombatants in its tally.

“Despite our utmost efforts not to harm innocent civilians, last night there was a tragic mistake,” Netanyahu said Monday in an address to Israel’s parliament. “We are investigating the incident and will obtain a conclusion because this is our policy.”

Mohammed Abuassa, who rushed to the scene in the northwestern neighborhood of Tel al-Sultan, said rescuers “pulled out people who were in an unbearable state.”

“We pulled out children who were in pieces. We pulled out young and elderly people. The fire in the camp was unreal,” he said.

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.

In a separate development, Egypt’s military said one of its soldiers was shot dead during an exchange of fire in the Rafah area, without providing further details. Israel said it was in contact with Egyptian authorities, and both sides said they were investigating.

An initial investigation found that the soldier had responded to an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants, Egypt’s state-owned Qahera TV reported. Egypt has warned that Israel’s incursion in Rafah could threaten the two countries’ decades-old peace treaty.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency closed meeting for Tuesday afternoon on the situation in Rafah at the request of Algeria, the Arab representative on the council, two council diplomats told The Associated Press ahead of an official announcement.

Rafah, the southernmost Gaza city on the border with Egypt, had housed more than a million people — about half of Gaza’s population — displaced from other parts of the territory. 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.

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Elsewhere in Rafah, the director of the Kuwait Hospital, one of the city’s last functioning medical centers, said it was shutting down and that staff members were relocating to a field hospital. Dr. Suhaib al-Hamas said the decision was made after a strike killed two health workers Monday at the entrance to the hospital.

Netanyahu says Israel must destroy what he says are Hamas’ last remaining battalions in Rafah. The militant group launched a barrage of rockets Sunday from the city toward heavily populated central Israel, setting off air raid sirens but causing no injuries.

The strike on Rafah brought a new wave of condemnation, even from Israel’s strongest supporters.

The U.S. National Security Council said in a statement the “devastating images” from the strike on Rafah were “heartbreaking.” It said the U.S. was working with the Israeli military and others to assess what happened.

French President Emmanuel Macron was more blunt, saying “these operations must stop” in a post on X. “There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians. I call for full respect for international law and an immediate cease-fire,” he wrote.

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