Netanyahu: Deadly Israeli airstrike in Rafah was 'tragic mistake'

Fire rages following an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced Palestinians, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in this still picture taken from a video, May 26, 2024. [Reuters]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that it was a “tragic mistake” that an attack targeting Hamas militants in the southern Gaza city of Rafah killed 45 Palestinians sheltering in a refugee camp there and wounded another 200.

"Despite our best effort not to harm those not involved, unfortunately a tragic mistake happened last night. We are investigating the case," Netanyahu told the Israeli parliament. Two senior Hamas militants were killed in the assault.

Volker Turk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, decried the incident, saying in a statement, "The images from the camp are horrific and point to no apparent change in the methods and means of warfare used by Israel that have already led to so many civilian deaths."

Even as he noted the Israeli military’s announced investigation, Turk said it was "shockingly clear" that the decision to strike an area "densely packed with civilians" would result in the "entirely predictable outcome" of the deaths of more Palestinian civilians.

He called on Israel to abide by last week’s International Court of Justice order to halt its offensive in Rafah. Turk also urged Palestinian armed groups to stop firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel "in clear violation of international humanitarian law" and release “at once” all the remaining 100 or so hostages Hamas is holding in Gaza.

European Council President Charles Michel also called the strikes “horrendous” and urged Israel to stop its offensive in Rafah.

“Horrendous to see innocent Palestinian civilians killed in the recent attack. There is no safe zone for the internally displaced in Rafah,” Michel said on the X social media platform.

In Washington, the White House National Security Council said "the devastating images from the attack … are 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 U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees described the situation in Gaza as “hell on earth.”

“Information coming out of Rafah about further attacks on families seeking shelter is horrifying,” UNRWA said.

The Gaza health ministry said the attack ignited fires in tents in an area sheltering displaced people. The Israeli military described its attack as a precise airstrike that killed Yassin Rabia, the Hamas chief of staff for the West Bank.

Qatar’s foreign ministry said Monday that the attack could complicate efforts to mediate a cease-fire and the return of hostages held in Gaza.

French President Emmanuel Macron called for an immediate cease-fire and “full respect for international law.”

“Outraged by the Israeli strikes that have killed many displaced persons in Rafah,” Macron said on social media. “These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians.”

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell cited the attack and said the international community faces the dilemma of how it can “enforce implementation” of last week’s International Court of Justice order.

The court is a branch of the United Nations but has no mechanism to enforce its orders without a vote of the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. holds veto power.

Netanyahu has vowed Israel will not leave Gaza until any remaining Hamas control of the territory is ended. He says Israel must take over Rafah to eliminate Hamas' battalions there and achieve its goal of "total victory" over the militants, who have recently regrouped in other parts of Gaza where the Israeli military had previously taken control.

Hamas said Sunday that it had launched a “large rocket barrage” targeting Israel’s commercial hub of Tel Aviv.

Air raid sirens blared during the attack, but Israel said there were no immediate  reports of casualties or damage. It was the first long-range rocket attack from Gaza since January, although rockets and mortar rounds have been fired at Israel from along the Gaza border since then. In the latest attack, rocket launches could be heard from central Gaza.

Hamas’ Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades said in a post on Telegram that it had targeted Tel Aviv "with a large rocket barrage in response to the Zionist massacres against civilians.”

The Israeli military said eight projectiles crossed into Israel after being launched from near Rafah, where Israeli forces recently launched an incursion. Israel said "a number" of the projectiles were intercepted.

The Israel-Hamas war was triggered by the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people according to Israeli officials and led to the capture of about 250 hostages. Israel’s subsequent counteroffensive has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians, a death toll that includes both civilians and combatants, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.