Dozens dead in ‘barbaric’ strike, hundreds of thousands flee, yet White House insists no red line has been crossed in Rafah

Biden had previously warned Israel that launching a major offensive in Rafah was a ’red line’ for his administration that would compel him to reevaluate US support

Rafa airstrike: US government 'deeply saddened’ and ’concerned’ by loss of life

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The Biden administration said it would continue to support Israel’s war in Gaza following an Israeli airstrike on a displaced persons camp in Rafah that killed dozens of Palestinians on Sunday and prompted global outrage.

White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said that the deadly strike, and reports that Israeli tanks were moving into center of the city on Tuesday, did not constitute a breach of the “red line” set by president Joe Biden that would cause him to reconsider his support.

“This is an air strike. It’s not a major ground operation,” he said, adding that the US would await the result of an Israeli investigation.

Graphic videos and photos shared online from the aftermath of the strike showed a person appearing to be burned alive, bodies of women and children who had been burned, and a man holding up the body of a baby who had been seemingly decapitated.

At least 50 Palestinians were killed and dozens more injured in the attack that targeted an area filled with tents, many of which caught on fire, according to the Gaza health authorities.

Witnesses said a further 37 people were killed on Tuesday by Israeli shelling and airstrikes, most of them while they were sheltering in tents in the same area where the deadly strikes on Sunday killed dozens. They also said Israeli tanks had moved into the centre of Rafah.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US was “deeply saddened” by the initial strike, adding that the US has reached out to Israel to demand an investigation and raise concerns.

“The [Israeli army] is continuing to investigate this matter and has promised that its investigation will be swift, comprehensive and transparent. We will be watching those results closely,” he said.

That statement stood in stark contrast to a wave of immediate global condemnation from world leaders, aid groups and concerned citizens over the past few days, while the White House remained largely silent.

French president Emmanuel Macron said he was “outraged by the Israeli strikes that have killed many displaced persons in Rafah.”

“These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians,” he added, calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike where displaced people were staying in Rafah, Gaza Strip.
Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike where displaced people were staying in Rafah, Gaza Strip. (Associated Press)

United Nations Secretary-General Antònio Guterres was similarly forceful in his response. “I condemn Israel’s actions which killed scores of innocent civilians who were only seeking shelter from this deadly conflict,” he said on X. “There is no safe place in Gaza. This horror must stop.”

The charity ActionAid said its activists witnessed the attack, which it described as an “inhumane and barbaric act”.

Moamen, 27, who is displaced from the very north of Gaza and was in the camp that was targeted on Sunday, said most of those in the area had been told it was in the humanitarian zone and they had no money to go anywhere else.

“I heard three missiles and a huge, very powerful explosion that shook the place. It appears that the rockets used were incendiary, as fires broke out in the area,” he said.

“It was a terrifying scene. I saw dismembered body parts and charred bodies, very large destruction in the tents of the displaced over a wide area,” he added.

The strike came just two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to “immediately halt its military offensive” in Rafah in a landmark emergency ruling that invoked the Genocide Convention.

The attack is likely to increase pressure on Mr Biden to reevaluate his support for Israel’s war in Gaza, after vowing to withhold offensive weapons from the longtime US ally if it launched a major operation in Rafah.

Mr Biden has repeatedly expressed his strong opposition to a major offensive in Rafah, which had become the last refuge for more than a million Palestinians who had fled from the war raging in other parts of Gaza. It is also where most aid agencies are operating.

In a March interview with MSNBC, when asked whether an Israeli invasion of Rafah would be a red line for him, he replied: “It is a red line but I’m never going to leave Israel. The defense of Israel is still critical.”

His officials have repeatedly said the US would not support a “major military operation” in Gaza’s southern city without a “credible ... executable” plan to protect civilians.

Mr Kirby was repeatedly pressed by reporters at a briefing on Tuesday to clarify what would constitute a breach of Mr Biden’s red line.

“Large units, large numbers of troops in columns and formations in some sort of coordinated manoeuvre against multiple targets on the ground. That is a major ground operation,” he said.

He also defended the Israeli operation in Rafah as being consistent with a “precise” and “targeted” offensive against Hamas that Mr Biden had called for, claiming that the bomb used in Sunday’s deadly attack was “not a big bomb.”

“Israelis have said they use 37-lb bombs, precision-guided munitions,” he said, adding that it was “indicative” of a limited operation.

The Israeli army quickly claimed response for the attack on Sunday, claiming its air force had struck a Hamas compound with “precise ammunition and on the basis of precise intelligence,” killing two Hamas officials in the process. But the next day, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident a “tragic mishap” in an address to Israel’s parliament and promised an investigation.

The Israeli army said Tuesday that it was investigating the possibility that a secondary explosion caused by weapons stored near where the strike occurred may have set tents ablaze. At his briefing, Mr Miller echoed that claim from Israeli forces while explaining that he could not say for sure if it was accurate, or whether Israeli forces could either.

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