Amid Condemnation, Netanyahu Calls Civilian Deaths in Rafah Strike ‘Tragic

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

His comments came at a particularly delicate time, just three days after the International Court of Justice appeared to order Israel to immediately halt its offensive in Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, and as diplomats were aiming to restart negotiations in the next week for a cease-fire and hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas.

The World Court appeared to order Israel on Friday to suspend its military offensive and “any other action” in Rafah that might wholly or partly destroy the Palestinian population there. Some of the court’s judges said that Israel could still conduct some military operations in Rafah under the terms of their decision.

Israel said the strike on Sunday night killed two Hamas officials, but the civilian deaths generated instant condemnation, likely making it harder for Israel to defend its position that the court order allowed it to continue its campaign in Rafah.

Mr. Netanyahu said in a speech to the Israeli Parliament that Israel tried to minimize civilian deaths by asking Gazans to evacuate parts of Rafah, but “despite our supreme effort not to harm uninvolved civilians, a tragic accident occurred to our regret last night.” He accused Hamas of hiding among the general population, saying, “For us, every uninvolved civilian who is hurt is a tragedy. For Hamas, it’s a strategy. That’s the whole difference.”

Israeli military aerial footage of the attack, reviewed by The New York Times, showed a munition striking an area housing several structures and parked cars.

Multiple videos from the same location after the strike, verified by The Times, showed fires raging through the night as people frantically pulled bodies from the rubble, shouting in horror as they carried the charred remains out of the camp. In one video, a man held a headless child as fire engulfed a structure behind him.

The Israeli military said the strike targeted a Hamas compound. In a statement on Monday, it said it had taken a number of steps beforehand to reduce the risk to civilians, including conducting aerial surveillance and using precision munitions.

“Based on these measures, it was assessed that there would be no expected harm to uninvolved civilians,” the military said.

But at least 45 people were killed by the blast and subsequent fires, according to the Gaza health ministry, including 23 women, children and older people. The ministry said that 249 people were wounded.

Palestinians in Rafah gathering at the site where internally displaced people were killed by an Israeli strike. Israel says the strike targeted a Hamas compound.Credit…Eyad Baba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said on Monday that an initial investigation by the military had concluded that the strike may have unexpectedly ignited a flammable substance at the site. Eyewitnesses described intense fires after the strike.

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

Two Israeli officials said that the strike took place outside the designated humanitarian zone that was supposed to offer safe refuge to residents told to evacuate, disputing a claim by the International Rescue Committee that it was within the safe zone. The military produced a map showing what it said was the location of the strike in relation to the designated humanitarian area.

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

Palestinian children peer into a funeral vehicle carrying the bodies of victims of the Israeli strike in Rafah. Credit…Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Hamas did not confirm their deaths, but in a statement it 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 strike occurred in Tal as Sultan, in northwest Rafah, according to the military. Israeli ground troops have so far been operating in southeast Rafah, and in a narrow corridor along the Egyptian border.

The order issued on Friday by the International Court of Justice, an arm of the United Nations, came as part of a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza. It called on Israel to immediately halt any actions in Rafah, “which 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 ruling allowed Israel to continue fighting in Rafah because it had not, and would not, inflict such conditions.

But even some of Israel’s allies disagree. Germany’s vice chancellor, Robert Habeck, said on Saturday that Israel’s offensive in Rafah was “incompatible with international law.” And President Emmanuel Macron of France said on Monday that he was “outraged” by the airstrike in Rafah, and that these operations “must stop.”

Legal experts said the World Court’s ruling was worded ambiguously, most likely deliberately, in part out of the need to find common ground among the judges.

But William Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University London and a former chairman of a U.N. commission of inquiry into Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip in 2014, said it was “preposterous” for Israel to take the order as “a kind of carte blanche to continue its military operations without change in Rafah.”

Individual opinions of some of the judges “suggest a lack of unanimity about the extent of any exceptions to the general prohibition on military activity in Rafah,” Professor Schabas said. But “stop means stop,” he said, calling Israel’s argument “a fanciful twisting of language.”

Palestinians walking through the destruction after an Israeli strike in Rafah.Credit…Jehad Alshrafi/Associated Press

Yuval Shany, a professor of international law at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the Israeli position “does make sense” given the obvious ambiguity in the language and the conditional nature of the ruling. But, he noted, the court viewed the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip as already catastrophic and deteriorating, and said that to comply with the ruling, Israel would have to do more to alleviate the risk to civilians and their suffering.

The deadly strike in Rafah “certainly complicates Israel’s position,” Professor Shany said — even if it was intended as the sort of focused, precise strike that Israel’s allies have urged it to switch to.

At times, such deadly accidents have generated enough international pressure on Israel to end rounds of conflict. During an Israeli operation against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 1996, Israeli forces shelled a U.N. compound in the village of Qana, killing more than a hundred civilians who had sought refuge there. That led to a U.N. Security Council call for an immediate cease-fire and a U.S.-brokered understanding that ended the hostilities about a week later.

In 2006, during another conflict with Hezbollah, a turning point came when Israeli forces shelled a multistory residential building in Qana, killing about 28 people.

Neil Collier, Patrick Kingsley, Arijeta Lajka, Myra Noveck , Johnatan Reiss and Christian Triebert contributed reporting.