Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted on Monday that his military’s gruesome attack that killed dozens of displaced Palestinians in Rafah was a “tragic mistake,” as his government faces international condemnation for the strikes that engulfed the tent camp in flames.

On Sunday night, Israeli forces began bombing a tent camp in the southern Gaza city’s Tel al-Sultan neighborhood, which was designated as a “safe zone” for displaced Palestinians to shelter. Local health officials said the strikes have killed at least 45 people, and that the number is expected to rise as people continue to dig through the rubble.

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

Israel has long been notorious for saying it is capable of investigating itself over alleged crimes, despite rights groups pointing out that authorities regularly fail to conduct a thorough probe of violence against Palestinians. In instances where Israel does follow through with imposing punitive measures on accused soldiers, the consequences usually lean on the lighter end.

Footage of the massacre spread quickly on social media, showing extremely graphic scenes of people burned alive and children’s bodies, including babies, torn up as screaming civilians try to escape while surrounded by flames.

“We pulled out people who were in an unbearable state,” Gaza civilian Mohammed Abuassa told The Associated Press. “We pulled out children who were in pieces. We pulled out young and elderly people. The fire in the camp was unreal.”

A Palestinian woman at a health clinic holds the shrouded body of a child killed in Israel's attack on a tent camp in Rafah's Tel al-Sultan neighborhood on May 26, 2024.
A Palestinian woman at a health clinic holds the shrouded body of a child killed in Israel’s attack on a tent camp in Rafah’s Tel al-Sultan neighborhood on May 26, 2024.

Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, most of the dead and wounded were women and children, bringing the Palestinian death toll from Israel’s military offensive to more than 36,000.

Netanyahu’s statement, which does not elaborate on the “mistake,” contradicts his own military’s claim hours earlier. The Israel Defense Force said on social media that soldiers “carried out an intelligence-based precise strike” that targeted senior Hamas officials.

The IDF claimed on Monday morning that Tel al-Sultan— or Zone 2371, as the military calls it — was not part of its designated humanitarian area, and so therefore soldiers were allowed to bomb the refugee camp. Anyone arguing otherwise is pushing Hamas propaganda, it argued.

Israeli officials eventually said they were looking into the strikes and that the military regrets the loss of civilian life. According to the AP, Maj. Gen. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, the Israeli military’s top legal official, said that such incidents happen “in a war of such scope and intensity” — echoing Netanyahu’s comments from earlier in the war when he said Palestinian deaths were merely collateral damage.

“We will never forget the images emerging from Rafah tonight,” pro-Palestinian group Jewish Voice for Peace said in a statement. “Human beings, including babies, were burned alive and torn apart. This genocide must end, it must end now.”

Netanyahu faced swift condemnation from the international community for the attack, with human rights groups, aid organizations and Western leaders calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The UN agency that provides aid to Palestinians said Monday that it has been unable to reach its teams on the ground in Rafah.

“Outraged by the Israeli strikes that have killed many displaced persons in Rafah,” French President Emmanuel Macron, one of Israel’s top allies, posted on social media. “These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians. I call for a full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire.”

The massacre occurred just two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to pull its military out of Rafah. Israel stands accused before the ICJ of committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, and the International Criminal Court recently announced that it is seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders.

An infographic on Israel's latest attack in Rafah, created in Ankara, Turkey on May 27, 2024. The attack comes despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice that ordered Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah.
An infographic on Israel’s latest attack in Rafah, created in Ankara, Turkey on May 27, 2024. The attack comes despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice that ordered Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah.

Omar Zaghloul/Anadolu via Getty Images

The attack also came as Spain, Ireland and Norway plan to diplomatically recognize a Palestinian state, a move that Israel’s foreign minister said was “rewarding terror.”

“This is really a dilemma. How can the international community … enforce the implementation of the decisions of the International Court of Justice? I suppose that today, we are going to discuss about it,” Josep Borrell, high representative for the European Union, told the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on Monday.

The White House’s National Security Council called the “devastating images” from Rafah “heartbreaking,” saying Israel “has a right to go after Hamas” but that the military “must take every precaution possible to protect civilians.” The statement, which does not mention any potential consequences for Israel, is virtually the same response the Biden administration has given after the IDF killed Palestinians, aid workers, children and medical staff and blocked necessary humanitarian assistance.

The U.S. government, specifically President Joe Biden, has not escaped similar condemnation for supporting and supplying the Israeli military. Biden has continued to back Netanyahu despite the prime minister regularly ignoring his strongest ally’s pleas to further reduce civilian harm.

“Enough is enough. If President Biden sends even one more missile to the Israeli government after seeing the apocalyptic footage of headless Palestinian children and civilians burned alive using U.S. bombs in a so-called Rafah safe zone, he will once again cross his own red line and every red line of U.S. law, international law and basic human decency,” Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national deputy director for Muslim civil rights group CAIR, said in a statement on Monday.

“No more shifting red lines, no more calls to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to investigate itself, and no more military, financial or diplomatic support for this genocide,” he continued. “All Americans are being stained with the blood of innocent Palestinians by the Biden administration’s support for this slaughter. It must end. Now.”


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