Netanyahu Says Deadly Israeli Strike in Rafah Was the Result of a ‘Tragic Mistake’

Netanyahu Says Deadly Israeli Strike in Rafah Was the Result of a ‘Tragic Mistake’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin on March 16, 2023. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The Associated Press
5/27/2024
Updated:
5/27/2024
0:00

TEL AVIV, Israel—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that a “tragic mistake” was made in an Israeli strike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah that set fire to a camp housing displaced Palestinians and, according to local officials, killed at least 45 people.

Mr. Netanyahu did not elaborate on the error. Israel’s military initially said it had carried out a precise airstrike on a Hamas compound, killing two senior terrorists. As details of the strike and fire emerged, the military said it had opened an investigation into the deaths of civilians.

Sunday night’s attack pushed the overall Palestinian death toll in the war above 36,000, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between terrorists and noncombatants in its tally.

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

At least 45 people were killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service.

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.

An initial investigation found that the soldier had responded to an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and Palestinian terrorists, Egypt’s state-owned Qahera TV reported. Egypt has warned that Israel’s incursion in Rafah could threaten the two countries’ decades-old peace treaty.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency closed meeting for Tuesday afternoon on the situation in Rafah at the request of Algeria, the Arab representative on the council, two council diplomats told The Associated Press.

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.

Mr. Netanyahu says Israel must destroy what he says are Hamas terrorists’ last remaining battalions in Rafah. The terrorist group launched a barrage of rockets Sunday from the city toward heavily populated central Israel, setting off air raid sirens but causing no injuries.

The U.S. National Security Council said in a statement that the “devastating images“ from the strike on Rafah were ”heartbreaking.” It said the United States was working with the Israeli military and others to assess what happened.

Qatar, a key mediator in attempts to secure a cease-fire 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’s demand for a lasting truce and the withdrawal of Israeli forces, terms Israeli leaders have publicly rejected.

The Israeli military’s top legal official, Maj. Gen. 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 possible violations of international law, including the deaths of civilians, the conditions at a detention facility holding suspected terrorists and the deaths of some inmates in Israeli custody. She said incidents of property crimes and looting were also being examined.

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 Rafah offensive, a ruling it has no power to enforce.

Separately, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Israeli Defense 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. Israeli leaders also say they face an enemy that makes no such commitment, embeds itself in civilian areas and refuses to release Israeli hostages unconditionally.

The Hamas terrorist group triggered the war with its Oct. 7 attack into Israel, in which Palestinian terorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and seized some 250 hostages. Hamas still holds about 100 hostages and the remains of around 30 others after most of the rest were released during a cease-fire last year.