Israel’s Rafah Assault Continues With New Airstrikes on Tent Camps for Displaced Palestinians

Palestinians inspect their destroyed tents after an Israeli air strike. The strike, which resulted in numerous deaths and injuries, exploded near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.Abed Rahim Khatib/dpa/ZUMA

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Amid global outrage over Israel’s devastating attack on a tent camp in Rafah that killed at least 45 displaced Palestinians, Israeli airstrikes on Tuesday reportedly hit another displacement camp killing at least 21 people.

Reuters reported that the Tuesday attack occurred in an evacuation area in Al-Mawasi, west of Rafah, where Israeli officials had advised Palestinians to move for their safety. As of Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Israeli military told Reuters that officials were “not aware of this incident.” But witnesses told Reuters they spotted Israeli tanks and armored vehicles with machine guns in central Rafah. State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters Tuesday afternoon that American officials had not yet been able to verify those reports.

The latest reported incident comes after the Sunday bombing of a tent camp in western Rafah that killed at least 45 people. Harrowing videos from the scene that circulated on social media showed fire engulfing the tents and charred bodies being pulled from the flames. In one video, an adult is seen holding up what appeared to be a toddler missing multiple body parts. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Sunday incident the result of “a tragic mishap” but offered no signs of slowing down Israel’s assault on Rafah. The Israeli military said the strike killed two senior Hamas militants.

Those explanations were insufficient for several world leaders and humanitarian groups. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the attacks, which he said “killed scores of innocent civilians who were only seeking shelter from this deadly conflict.”

“There is no safe place in Gaza,” Guterres added. “This horror must stop.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “outraged” by the Sunday attacks and that “these operations must stop.”

The International Rescue Committee also condemned the attacks and alleged they violated international humanitarian law.

American officials have been comparatively more muted, with some wondering how Sunday’s attack would square with President Biden’s pronouncement earlier this month that he would stop sending weapons to Israel if it proceeded with a major ground invasion in Rafah. (That threat quickly proved meaningless, given that the Biden administration announced last week it was beginning a process to attempt to send another $1 billion in weapons to Israel.)

As of Tuesday afternoon, Biden does not appear to have publicly addressed the deadly attacks on civilians in and near Rafah’s tent camps. A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. At Tuesday’s press conference, reporters pressed Miller, the State Department spokesperson, for more clarity on what actions by Israel, exactly, would constitute Biden’s so-called red line that would lead him to stop sending weapons.

“Is there actually a red line?” one reporter asked. “Do you have a yardstick by which you measure a red line that Israel may cross?”

Miller responded by referring to comments that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had made last week in which Sullivan said “there’s no mathematical formula.”

“What we’re going to be looking at,” Sullivan said last week, “is whether there is a lot of death and destruction from this operation or if it is more precise and proportional.”

Today, reporters at the State Department briefing sought a clearer answer.

“So in theory,” the reporter who asked about the red line continued, “Israel can strike anywhere, basically, and say, ‘there are Hamas operatives?’”

“I’m not going to deal with your theories,” Miller replied. “I’m going to deal with reality.”

Miller added that US officials would continue to monitor the situation in Gaza and that “we will continue to impress to [Israel] the importance of conducting legitimate operations that go after Hamas in a way that minimizes civilian harm.” He added that so far, Israel’s attacks in and near Rafah are not “on the scale” of previous incursions they conducted earlier in the war, including in Khan Younis, which Israeli forces invaded in December and destroyed more than half of buildings, according to the Associated Press. Miller also said U.S. officials will push Israeli officials to investigate what led to the deadly Sunday strikes and make their findings public.

The US’s continued support for Israel, despite the deepening humanitarian crisis, comes amid a series of international court developments seeking to hold Israel accountable for the devastation. Last week, the top U.N. court ordered Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah, and International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan announced he was seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and three Hamas leaders for alleged war crimes. Earlier this year, the International Court of Justice also ruled that a case brought by South Africa alleging Israel is committing genocide in Gaza will go forward and that, in the meantime, Israel must take steps to prevent genocide and get more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Despite all this, Biden continues to have Bibi’s back. The State Department has also come under fire from humanitarian aid groups after concluding in a delayed report released earlier this month that Israel was not restricting the flow of U.S. aid into Gaza, which more than 20 aid groups said was contrary to what their representatives had witnessed on the ground.

But as my colleague Noah Lanard has written, if Biden was serious about ending the war in Gaza, several concrete steps, including the restriction of arms transfers and military aid, are available to the president. In the meantime, as the past couple of days have shown, it’s overwhelmingly Palestinian children and innocent civilians who are paying the price of Israel’s war in Gaza.