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‘Tragic mishap’: Botched Israeli strike kills displaced civilians in Rafah

The International Court of Justice ordered Israel to stop its Rafah operation. Two days later, a planned precision strike lit a fire that killed 45 civilians.
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scorched tents

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike where displaced people were staying in Rafah, Gaza Strip on Monday (Jehad Alshrafi/AP/Haaretz).

Published: 28 May 2024

Last updated: 28 May 2024

An Israeli airstrike has caused a huge blaze at a tented area for displaced people in Rafah, killing 45 people and wounding 60 on Monday.

Israel has described the event as a “tragic mishap”, which occurred when a planned precision strike ignited fires in a Rafah neighbourhood where thousands of displaced Gazans live in makeshift accommodation.

The Palestinian health ministry in the Hamas-controlled area said about half of the dead are women, children and older adults.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said in parliament that “something unfortunately went tragically wrong” with the airstrike. “We are investigating the incident and will reach conclusions, because this is our policy,” he said.

But some analysts say an incident of this kind was inevitable given the scale of Israeli military operations and the density of the displaced population in Gaza.

ICJ order to stop Rafah operation

The strike, one of the deadliest single incidents in the eight-month war to date, came two days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague ordered Israel to stop its operation in Rafah immediately.

The president of court Nawaf Salam said the humanitarian situation in Rafah had deteriorated further and was now classified as “disastrous”, meaning the ICJ’s previously issued provisional measures were insufficient.

He said the court had voted by a majority of 13 votes to two that “Israel shall, in conformity with its obligations under the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, and in view of the worsening conditions of life faced by civilians in Rafah governorate… immediately halt its military offensive and any other action in the Rafah governorate which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that would bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”.

The order by the ICJ is not enforceable, and Israeli ministers indicated that they would not comply with it.

Implications for ceasefire

A statement from the Qatari foreign ministry said the strike could have diplomatic repercussions and hinder talks toward a truce and hostage release deal.

Doha voiced “concern that the bombing will complicate ongoing mediation efforts and hinder reaching an agreement for an immediate and permanent ceasefire”.

Others suggested the incident could force Israel to a ceasefire even without a hostage deal.

The civilian deaths prompted an outcry from global leaders, who called for the implementation of the ICJ order.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the strikes “in the strongest terms” in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday afternoon.

“Horrified by news coming out of Rafah on Israeli strikes killing dozens of displaced persons, including small children,” he wrote.

“There is no safe place in Gaza. These attacks must stop immediately. ICJ orders [international humanitarian law] must be respected by all parties,” he wrote. “This is really a dilemma [about] how the international community can… force implementation of the decision.”

A US spokesman lamented the “devastating” and “heartbreaking” images from the IDF missile strike but defended Israel’s right to attack.

“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,” said a statement from a National Security Council spokesperson.

Israel investigating 70 violations of war laws

Israel's top military prosecutor described the incident as "very grave." Major-General Yifat Tomer Yerushalmi told a conference hosted by the Israel Bar Association that the matter was under investigation “which we are committed to conducting to the fullest extent".

She said the IDF is also investigating about 70 cases of suspected violations of the laws of war.

The investigations focus on the incarceration conditions in the Sde Teiman detention facility in southern Israel; the deaths of Palestinian detainees held by the IDF; incidents in which civilians uninvolved in the fighting were killed by Israeli forces; and other violent incidents that include property crimes and looting committed by Israeli soldiers.


Global shock after Israeli airstrike kills dozens in Rafah tent camp (Guardian)

Rafah civilians likely died from fire set off by strike on Hamas officials; death toll hits 45 (Haaretz)

UN’s top court orders Israel to immediately halt Rafah offensive (Guardian)

No longer justifiable’: Israel faces international condemnation for strike in Rafah (Times of Israel)

US laments ‘devastating’ Rafah strike, urges Israel to better protect civilians (Times of Israel)

Analysis | Civilian deaths in Rafah could force israel into a cease-fire - even without a hostage deal (Amos Harel, Haaretz)

Top Israeli military lawyer investigating about 70 possible legal violations during Gaza War (Haaretz)


  • Avatar of Rachel Sussman

    Rachel Sussman29 May at 11:02 am

    How sad that you jumped on the waggon with the likes of BBC and friends to ‘point the finger’ at Israel and accuse it of ‘botching’ its operation in Rafa without giving it the benefit of investigating what happened. As it is, the incident is not an ‘Israeli failure’ but a failure of Hamas… and how sad that one of the comentator on this article expresses ‘lack of confidence’ in Israeli investigation. I for one have more confidence in a Government that takes responsibility and commits to explore what happened than in a terror organization and a ‘bandwagon’ of journalists who are quick to blame and point the finger…
    How dusappointing indeed.

  • Avatar of Wesley Parish

    Wesley Parish28 May at 08:09 am

    I’m afraid my expectations of the IDF’s ability to conduct a genuine investigation into its misdeeds, are coloured by reading a novel by Simon Louvish, titled “City of Blok”, where one character says this: “Palestinians can fly! Every time the IDF shoots into the air to disperse protests, Palestinians get bullet-wounds in legs and torso”. I think the IDF would sooner say that its soldiers were menaced by wild haggises during haggis mating season and had to shoot in self-defense, than admit the truth – that they knew very well what they were doing, and didn’t care about the consequences.

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