Israel’s Netanyahu calls Rafah attack a ‘tragic mistake’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted on Monday that his army’s deadly attack that killed dozens of displaced Palestinians in Rafah was a “tragic mistake”, as his government faces international condemnation for incendiary attacks on a tent camp.

On Sunday night, the Israeli army began bombing a tent camp in the Tel al-Sultan area of ​​southern Gaza City, which had been designated as a “safe zone” for displaced Palestinians to shelter. Local health officials said at least 45 people had been killed in the attacks, and that number is expected to rise as people continue to dig through the rubble.

“Despite our best efforts not to harm innocent civilians, a tragic mistake occurred last night,” Netanyahu told Israel’s parliament. “We are investigating the incident and will draw conclusions as is our policy.”

Israel has long been notorious for claiming it is capable of investigating alleged crimes on its own, while rights groups say authorities routinely fail to thoroughly investigate violence against Palestinians. In cases where Israel does follow through on imposing punitive measures on accused soldiers, the consequences are usually mild.

Footage of the massacre spread rapidly on social media, showing horrific scenes of people being burned alive and bodies of children, including babies, being torn apart as civilians screamed and tried to escape from the flames.

“We pulled out people who were in unbearable conditions,” Gaza civilian Mohammed Abuassa told The Associated Press. “We pulled out children who were in pieces. We pulled out young and old people. The fire in the camp was unbelievable.”

A Palestinian woman at a health clinic holds the body of a child killed in an Israeli attack on a tent camp in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah, May 26, 2024.

IYAD BABA/AFP via Getty Images

Most of the dead and injured were women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, bringing the number of Palestinians killed in the Israeli military offensive to more than 36,000.

Netanyahu’s statement, which did not elaborate on the “mistake,” contradicts a claim made by his own military just hours earlier. The Israel Defense Forces said on social media that troops had carried out a “precision strike based on intelligence” targeting senior Hamas officials.

The IDF claimed on Monday morning that Tel al-Sultan – or Zone 2371, as the military calls it – was not part of its designated humanitarian zone, and therefore troops were allowed to bomb the refugee camp. It argued that anyone arguing otherwise was promoting Hamas propaganda.

But Aid groups with staff on the ground during the attack said the tent camp was in a designated safe zone.

Israeli officials eventually said they were investigating the attacks and that the military regretted the loss of civilian lives. According to the AP, Major General Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, the Israeli military’s top legal officer, said such incidents happen “in a war of such scale and intensity” — echoing Netanyahu’s comments before the war when he said Palestinian deaths were merely collateral damage.

“We will never forget the pictures that came from Rafah tonight,” the pro-Palestinian group Jewish Voice for Peace said in a statement. “Human beings, including children, were burned alive and dismembered. This genocide must stop, it must stop now.”

Netanyahu faced fierce criticism from the international community for the attack, with human rights groups, aid organisations and Western leaders calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The UN agency that provides aid to the Palestinians said on Monday it had been unable to reach its teams on the ground in Rafah.

“We are deeply outraged by the Israeli attacks that have killed many displaced people in Rafah,” French President Emmanuel Macron, one of Israel’s top allies, posted on social media. “These operations must stop. There is no safe zone for Palestinian civilians in Rafah. I call for full respect of international law and an immediate ceasefire.”

The massacre came two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to withdraw its troops from Rafah. Israel is accused of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and the International Criminal Court recently announced it was seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant and three Hamas leaders.

An infographic on Israel's latest attack in Rafah, created in Ankara, Turkey on May 27, 2024. The attack comes despite an International Court of Justice ruling ordering Israel to halt its attack in Rafah.
An infographic on Israel’s latest attack in Rafah, created in Ankara, Turkey on May 27, 2024. The attack comes despite an International Court of Justice ruling ordering Israel to halt its attack in Rafah.

Omar Zaghloul/Anadolu via Getty Images

The attack comes as Spain, Ireland and Norway plan to diplomatically recognise the Palestinian state, a move that Israel’s foreign minister said amounted to “rewarding terrorism”.

“This is really a dilemma. How can the international community … enforce the implementation of the decisions of the International Court of Justice? I think today, we are going to discuss this,” EU High Representative Josep Borrell told the EU Foreign Affairs Council on Monday.

The White House National Security Council described the “devastating images” from Rafah as “heartbreaking” and said Israel “reserves the right to attack Hamas” but the military “must take every precaution to protect civilians.” The statement, which did not mention any potential consequences for Israel, is virtually the same response the Biden administration has given after the IDF killed Palestinians, aid workers, children and medical staff and blocked essential humanitarian assistance.

The US government, particularly President Joe Biden, has not escaped similar condemnation for supporting and supplying the Israeli military. Biden has continued to back Netanyahu, while the prime minister has regularly ignored the appeals of his strongest ally to minimize harm to civilians.

Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national deputy director of the Muslim civil rights group CAIR, said in a statement Monday, “Enough is enough. If President Biden sends another missile to the Israeli government after witnessing the horrific sight of headless Palestinian children and civilians being burned alive using American bombs in the so-called Rafah safe zone, he will once again cross his own red line and every red line of American law, international law, and basic human decency.”

“There must be no more red lines, no more calls for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to investigate itself, and no more military, financial, or diplomatic support for this genocide,” he added. “The Biden administration’s support for this genocide stains all American lives with the blood of innocent Palestinians. It must end. Now.”