Israel-Hamas War

Netanyahu calls Israeli strike that killed dozens in Gaza tent camp ‘tragic' incident

The strike drew condemnation from world leaders just days after the United Nations' top court ordered Israel to halt its offensive on the southern Gaza city where more than a million had sought refuge.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict-Rafah
Abed Rahim Khatib/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Dozens of people were killed in Rafah late Sunday after an Israeli airstrike on an area where displaced civilians were sheltering in tents and sparked a fire that tore across the camp, local officials said according to NBC News.

Images showed the area engulfed in flames as screaming Palestinians fled for safety, with some video shared on social media showing disturbing images including severely burned corpses and a man holding what appears to be the headless body of a small child.

The strike drew condemnation from world leaders just days after the United Nations' top court ordered Israel to halt its offensive on the southern Gaza city where more than a million had sought refuge.

In an address to the Knesset on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the strike “a tragic incident," his office said, clarifying comments made in Hebrew that could be translated in English as either “a tragic mishap” or “a tragic mistake.”

“We are investigating the case and will draw conclusions because this is our policy," he said.

As global outcry mounted, the Israel Defense Forces initially said it had targeted two senior Hamas leaders, did not strike a designated humanitarian area and took steps to reduce the risk of harming civilians, but said a full investigation would be conducted into "the deaths of civilians in the area of the strike."

Qatar warned it could hinder efforts to reach a cease-fire deal, which had been renewed in Europe over the weekend. Adding to tensions, Egypt's military said one of its soldiers was killed after reports of a firefight with Israeli forces at the Rafah border area.

The IDF confirmed that “a shooting incident occurred on the Egyptian border,” adding that the incident was under review and that discussions were being held with the Egyptians.

NBC News was not able to independently verify the situation on the ground.

'They said it is safe'

The Gaza health ministry reported that at least 35 people had been killed in the Tal al-Sultan neighborhood, the majority of them women and children. First responders had warned the number of casualties could rise as many were trapped in flames that erupted following the bombardment.

And on Monday, the ministry said the death toll had risen to at least 45 people.

"This massacre is the largest in the city of Rafah in months," the spokesman for the Palestinian Civil Defense in Rafah, Muhammad Al-Mughir, told NBC News. He stressed that the area hit was a designated "humanitarian area" next to U.N. warehouses.

Samuel Johann, the emergency coordinator in Gaza for Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctor Without Borders, said Sunday's strike hit just under a mile from an MSF stabilization point for trauma patients. He said the facility received dozens of people, with at least 28 already dead and 180 arriving injured.

One family described their harrowing escape after the apartment building they were sheltering in appeared to be impacted.

"Suddenly, windows shattered," Hala Siam told NBC News’ crew on the ground. "The children got scared. We all went out to the street."

"They said it is safe," Siam said of the area she and her family were sheltering in. "There is no safe place in Rafah."

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Monday he is seeking arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in connection with increased violence and loss of life during the war in Gaza.

The IDF said its strike targeted two Hamas leaders who it said were responsible for organizing terrorist attacks in the occupied West Bank area. It said that it was aware of reports that civilian tents were ignited in the strike and that the incident was "under review."

In a subsequent statement, the IDF said that the airstrike was based on "prior intelligence information regarding the presence of the senior Hamas terrorists at the site." It said that before the strike "a number of steps were taken to reduce the risk of harming uninvolved civilians" and that "it was assessed that there would be no expected harm to uninvolved civilians."

It said that an investigation was underway into "the circumstances of the deaths of civilians in the area of the strike. The IDF regrets any harm to uninvolved civilians during combat."

In a statement, Hamas described the strike as a horrific “massacre." It did not confirm the death of the commander or senior leader.

Earlier Sunday, Hamas' military wing announced a missile barrage into Israel targeting Tel Aviv, the first in many weeks. The IDF said that eight projectiles were identified crossing from the area of Rafah into Israeli territory and that a number had been intercepted.

As outrage mounted over Sunday's Rafah attack, mediators Qatar and Egypt condemned the assault as a violation of international law. Qatar, a key broker in talks with Hamas, warned it could imperil efforts toward a new hostage deal.

Following weekend talks involving CIA Director William Burns in Paris, an Israeli official told NBC News the Israeli government was hopeful talks may resume this week.

But French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "outraged by the Israeli strikes that have killed many displaced persons in Rafah," adding "these operations must stop." The European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, also condemned the strike and said he was "horrified."

A spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council said images of the scene were heartbreaking.

“Israel has a right to go after Hamas, and we understand this strike killed two senior Hamas terrorists who are responsible for attacks against Israeli civilians. But as we’ve been clear, Israel must take every precaution possible to protect civilians,” the spokesperson said. “We are actively engaging the IDF and partners on the ground to assess what happened, and understand that the IDF is conducting an investigation.”

World Central Kitchen is set to resume its humanitarian operations in Gaza after seven aid workers were killed by Israeli air strikes.

In a briefing last Wednesday ahead of the International Court of Justice ruling, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Israel's military operations appeared to have been "more targeted and limited."

President Joe Biden had been vocal warning any full-scale assault on Rafah could see him suspend the shipment of certain weapons.

Netanyahu has faced increasing scrutiny over how Israel is conducting the war, which it launched after the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack. Some 1,200 people were killed and 250 others were taken hostage, officials said, of which 125 are thought to still be captive in Gaza with around a quarter believed to be dead.

More than 35,000 people have been killed in Gaza over seven months of war, according to local health authorities. Aid groups have warned of catastrophic conditions for civilians who lack access to food and clean water, fueling a possible famine in parts of the enclave.

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