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US urges Israel to fully investigate deadly strike in Rafah camp

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The United States expressed “deep concern” Tuesday over an apparent Israeli airstrike Sunday that killed at least 45 Palestinians sheltering in a refugee camp in Rafah and wounded 200 others. The U.S. said it has urged Israel to conduct a full investigation.

“Those images were heartbreaking,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters.

He said while Israel has a right to go after Hamas, Israel has an obligation to do everything possible to minimize civilian harm while it carries out its operations.

“We will continue to emphasize to Israel their obligation to comply fully with international humanitarian law, minimize the impact of their operations on civilians and maximize the flow of humanitarian assistance to those in need,” Miller said, adding Israel’s military had promised a swift, comprehensive and transparent investigation.

“We will be watching those results closely,” he said.

Israel’s military said it is looking into the possibility that weapons stored in the area hit by the Israeli strike may have sparked a deadly fire at the refugee camp Sunday. A military spokesman said Tuesday the munitions used in the Israeli strike were too small to set off a big blaze.

The Gaza Health Ministry said the attack ignited tent fires in an area sheltering displaced people. Israel said it killed two senior Hamas militants in the attack.

“I think this speaks very clearly to the challenge of military airstrikes in densely populated areas of Gaza, including Rafah, because of the risk of civilian casualties,” national security communications adviser John Kirby said of the initial Israeli findings of the fire being caused by a secondary explosion and not the initial strike.

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment, adjunct to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, May 28, 2024.
Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel’s bombardment, adjunct to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, May 28, 2024.

The U.N. Security Council met Tuesday afternoon in a closed session requested by Algeria to discuss the attack. After the meeting, Ambassador Amar Bendjama told reporters that Algeria plans to circulate a draft resolution shortly on Rafah.

“A short text. A decisive text to stop the killing in Rafah,” he said.

The Algerian text, seen by VOA, “Decides that Israel, the occupying Power, shall immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in Rafah.” It also demands an immediate cease-fire “respected by all parties” and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.

Speaking before the meeting, French envoy Nicolas de Riviere told reporters that Israel must stop its operation in accordance with the International Court of Justice ruling, and Palestinian groups must stop rocket attacks on Israel.

“This is a matter of life and death,” he said. “This is a matter of emergency.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement Tuesday that the “relentless violence” must stop and reiterated his call for a humanitarian cease-fire and the unconditional and immediate release of all hostages.

Gaza medical personnel and residents reported new Israeli airstrikes Tuesday in the area of al-Mawasi on the enclave’s coast, where thousands of people have fled to what Israel has said is a designated “safe zone.”

The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 20 civilians were killed. The Israel Defense Forces denied striking the area.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said Tuesday that more than 940,000 people have fled Rafah in the past three weeks amid Israel’s offensive. Another 100,000 have been displaced by fighting in northern Gaza.

U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths issued a statement late Monday calling the Rafah attack “utterly unacceptable.” He criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s explanation that what happened was a “tragic mistake.”

A Palestinian child, wounded in an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced people, is assisted at a hospital, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, May 26, 2024.
A Palestinian child, wounded in an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced people, is assisted at a hospital, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, May 26, 2024.

“Whether the attack was a war crime or a ‘tragic mistake,’ for the people of Gaza, there is no debate,” Griffiths said. “What happened last night was the latest — and possibly most cruel — abomination. To call it ‘a mistake’ is a message that means nothing for those killed, those grieving, and those trying to save lives,” he added.

“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.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel needs to carry out an offensive in Rafah to achieve its goal of ensuring Hamas cannot operate in Gaza and threaten Israel in the future.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said Monday the attack could complicate efforts to mediate stalled cease-fire talks and the return of the hostages held in Gaza.

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 Gaza Health Ministry.

White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara and United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.