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Netanyahu says deadly Israeli strike in Rafah was result of a ‘tragic mistake’

Netanyahu says deadly Israeli strike in Rafah was result of a ‘tragic mistake’
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Israel-Gaza war: Netanyahu acknowledges ‘tragic mistake’ after strike kills dozens at Rafah tent camp

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that a “tragic mistake” had been made after an Israeli strike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah set fire to a tent camp housing displaced Palestinians and, according to local officials, killed at least 45 people.

The mistake 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.

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 aftermath of the Israeli strike on a camp area housing internally displaced people in Rafah. Photo: AFP

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 non-combatants in its tally.

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

The United States said Israel must make every possible effort to avoid civilian casualties.

“We are actively engaging the IDF and partners on the ground to assess what happened,” a US National Security Council spokesman said on Monday.

“The devastating images following an IDF strike in Rafah last night that killed dozens of innocent Palestinians are heartbreaking,” the spokesman said.

Mohammed Abuassa, who rushed to the scene in the northwestern neighbourhood 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.

Palestinians carry bodies after an Israeli strike on a camp at an area designated for displaced people in Rafah. Photo: EPA-EFE

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.

“A few hours ago, a shooting incident occurred on the Egyptian border. The incident is under review and discussions are being held with the Egyptians,” the Israeli military said in a statement.

Egypt warned against compromising the security and safety of its security forces following the shooting, a high-level source told Egypt’s state-linked Al-Qahera news on Monday.

Preliminary investigations showed that Egyptian security staff had reacted to an exchange of gunfire “between Israeli forces and members of the Palestinian resistance, which led to shooting in several directions”, the source said, adding that Egypt would take necessary measures to prevent the incident from recurring.

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.

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

Qatar, a key mediator in attempts to secure a ceasefire and the release of hostages held by Hamas, said the Rafah strike could “complicate” talks.

Negotiations, which appear to be restarting, have faltered repeatedly over Hamas’ demand for a lasting truce and the withdrawal of Israeli forces, terms Israeli leaders have publicly rejected.

The Israeli military’s top legal official, Major General Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, said authorities were examining the strike in Rafah and that the military regrets the loss of civilian life.

Speaking to an Israeli lawyers’ conference, Tomer-Yerushalmi said Israel has launched 70 criminal investigations into incidents that aroused suspicions of international law violations, including the deaths of civilians, the conditions at a detention facility holding suspected Palestinian militants and the deaths of some inmates in Israeli custody.

She said incidents of “violence, property crimes and looting” were also being examined.

A tank manoeuvres near the Israel-Gaza border. Photo: Reuters

Israel has long maintained it has an independent judiciary capable of investigating and prosecuting abuses. But rights groups say Israeli authorities routinely fail to fully investigate violence against Palestinians and that even when soldiers are held accountable, the punishment is usually light.

Israel has denied allegations of genocide brought against it by South Africa at the International Court of Justice. Last week, the court ordered Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah, a ruling that it has no power to enforce.

Separately, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as three Hamas leaders, over alleged crimes linked to the war.

The ICC only intervenes when it concludes that the state in question is unable or unwilling to properly prosecute such crimes.

Israel says it does its best to adhere to the laws of war and that it faces an enemy that makes no such commitment, embeds itself in civilian areas and refuses to release Israeli hostages unconditionally.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters

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