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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Netanyahu calls civilian deaths in Israeli strike on Rafah ‘tragic accident’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with President Joe Biden in Israel amid the Israel–Hamas war, on Oct. 18, 2023. Netanyahu 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. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Isabel Kershner

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 the city and as diplomats were aiming to restart negotiations for a cease-fire and hostage-release deal between Israel and Hamas at some point in the next week.

The International Court of Justice 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 Sunday night killed two Hamas officials, but the civilian deaths generated instant condemnation, likely making it harder for Israel to defend its view that the ambiguity of the court order allowed it to continue its campaign in Rafah.

President Emmanuel Macron of France said Monday that he was “outraged” by the airstrike in Rafah, adding that these operations “must stop.”

Netanyahu said in a speech to the Israeli parliament that Israel tried to minimize civilian deaths by asking people in the Gaza Strip to evacuate, 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.”

The military said the target of the strike Sunday was a Hamas compound, adding that “precise munitions” were used to eliminate a Hamas commander and another senior Hamas official at the site.

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.

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

The Israeli military said in a statement Monday that it had taken a number of steps before the strike to reduce the risk of harming uninvolved civilians, including conducting aerial surveillance and using precise munitions. “Based on these measures, it was assessed that there would be no expected harm to uninvolved civilians,” the military said.

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 being told to evacuate to get out of harm’s way. 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 two targets of the strike as Yassin Rabia, the commander of Hamas’ leadership in the occupied West Bank, and Khaled Nagar, a senior official in the same wing of the group. The military said the West Bank wing was responsible for planning, funding and carrying out terrorist attacks throughout the West Bank and within Israel.

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