'Our munition alone couldn't have ignited fire of this size'

IDF says hidden store of terror munitions may have caused deadly Rafah blaze

Military probing if stockpile of weapons, other combustibles, caused secondary blasts leading to dozens of deaths, says airstrike was almost a mile from designated Gaza safe zone

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

An IDF infographic provided on May 28, 2024, about a strike in Rafah two days earlier, which was said to have caused the deaths of dozens of civilians. (IDF)
An IDF infographic provided on May 28, 2024, about a strike in Rafah two days earlier, which was said to have caused the deaths of dozens of civilians. (IDF)

The Israel Defense Forces said Tuesday that a hidden store of weapons may have been the actual cause of a deadly blaze in southern Gaza’s Rafah, and that an airstrike that targeted an adjacent area had used small munitions that would not ignite such a fire on their own.

The military suspects that the munitions or some other combustible substance it was unaware of caused a secondary explosion and a fire to spread in a complex housing displaced Gazans in Rafah, killing dozens of Palestinian civilians, following an airstrike targeting two top Hamas terrorists in the area.

The attack and deaths prompted a wave of international condemnation, with Palestinians and many Arab countries calling it a “massacre.” The United Nations Security Council was set to convene an emergency meeting later on Tuesday regarding the incident, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said was a “tragic mishap.”

It came as Israel pressed ahead with its controversial offensive in the Rafah that even before it started faced strong opposition, including from the United States, over the risk to non-combatants, with over 1 million people having sought shelter in the area amid the ongoing war. In an effort to keep civilians out of danger, the IDF has instructed them to move to designated safe zones, where many of the people displaced by the war are living in tents.

In an update on its investigation of the incident, the IDF said it had been tracking Hamas commanders Yassin Rabia and Khaled Najjar ahead of the strike on a compound they were in on Sunday night, in the Tel Sultan neighborhood in western Rafah. According to the IDF’s intelligence, the area had been used for Hamas activity, with a rocket launcher located just a few dozen meters away from where the two commanders were killed.

According to the IDF, the strike was not intended to harm any civilians and it had carried out steps ahead of the attack to ensure that no women or children were in the Hamas compound.

An IDF infographic provided on May 28, 2024, about a strike in Rafah two days earlier. (IDF)

Israeli fighter jets also used two small munitions in the strike, each with a 17-kilogram warhead (37-pound), in an attempt to prevent any civilian casualties, given the close proximity to the camp for displaced Palestinians, the military said.

Still, following the strike, a fire spread in the adjacent complex where Palestinian civilians were sheltering. According to Hamas health authorities in Gaza, 45 people were killed and dozens more were wounded.

The two small missiles on their own would not have been enough to spark the fire, according to the IDF’s initial probe.

The military was further investigating what exactly had sparked the fire. The IDF’s initial probe suspects ammunition, weapons or some other material was stored in the area of the strike, causing a secondary blast and the fire that spread and killed the Palestinian civilians.

Palestinians inspect damage after an Israeli airstrike on what the IDF said was a Hamas compound, adjacent to a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 27, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

An independent military body responsible for investigating unusual incidents amid the war is investigating the Rafah strike.

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, in an English-language press conference Tuesday, said the military is still probing the tragedy, while also providing evidence that the fire was caused by something else in the area.

“On Sunday, we eliminated senior Hamas terrorists in a targeted strike, on a compound used by Hamas in Rafah. The strike was based on precise intelligence that indicated that these terrorists, who were responsible for orchestrating and executing terror attacks against Israelis, were meeting inside this structure we targeted,” Hagari said.

“We took a number of steps prior to the strike to avoid civilian casualties. Aerial surveillance, using specific munitions to minimize collateral damage, delaying the attack to further assess the expected civilian presence, and other means,” the spokesman said.

“Sadly, following the strike, due to unforeseen circumstances, a fire ignited, taking the lives of Gazan civilians nearby. Despite our efforts to minimize civilian casualties during the strike, the fire that broke out was unexpected and unintended,” he continued.

Hagari said the deaths of the civilians in the strike were a “devastating incident, which we did not expect.”

Showing imagery from the site, Hagari said the IDF “targeted a closed structure away from the tent area. There are no tents in the immediate vicinity.”

“Contrary to reports, we conducted the strike outside the area that we designated as a humanitarian area and called civilians to evacuate to. Our strike was over a kilometer and a half (0.9 miles) away from the al-Mawasi humanitarian area, what we call the safer zone,” he stressed.

An IDF infographic provided on May 28, 2024, about a strike in Rafah two days earlier. (IDF)

“The strike was conducted using two munitions with small warheads, suited for this targeted strike,” Hagari said, adding that the 17-kilogram weapons are “the smallest munitions that our jets can use.”

“Following this strike, a large fire ignited, for reasons still being investigated. Our munition alone could not have ignited a fire of this size,” he said.

“Our investigation seeks to determine what may have caused such a large fire to ignite. We are looking into all possibilities, including the possibility that weapons stored in a compound next to our target, which we did not know of, may have ignited as a result of the strike,” added Hagari.

He said the IDF is also looking at “footage, documented by Gazans on the night of the strike, posted on social media, which appeared to show secondary explosions, indicating that there may have been weapons in the area.”

Further evidence came from phone conversations between Gazans in which they were heard asserting that there were weapons in the area.

“Signals intelligence intercepted some phone calls that reinforce this concern, raising the possibility that weapons stored in a nearby compound caught fire,” he said, before airing one such call in which Gazans discussed the blast and “ammunition that started exploding.”

“Yes, this is an ammunition warehouse. I tell you it exploded. The Jewish bombing wasn’t strong, it was a small missile, because it didn’t create a large hole. And afterward a lot of secondary explosions,” one of the Palestinians is heard saying in the call.

“We are working to verify the cause of the fire. It is still too early to be determined. Even when we do find the cause of the fire that erupted, it won’t make the situation any less tragic,” Hagari said, and vowed that the investigation will be “swift, comprehensive, and transparent.”

Hagari pointed out that Hamas has been operating in the area since the start of the war on October 7 and presented an image showing the terror group’s rocket launchers 43 meters from the targeted site.

“Hamas fired rockets from these launchers at Israel during the massacre on October 7,” Hagari said.

On Tuesday, Hamas claimed that at least another 21 people were killed in a separate strike on the al-Mawasi safe zone.

A civil defense official in the Hamas-run Strip, Mohammad al-Mughayyir, said they were killed in an “occupation strike targeting the tents of displaced people west of Rafah.” Hamas said an Israeli strike had caused “dozens of martyrs and wounded” in the area.

The IDF issued a denial, saying in a statement, “Contrary to the reports from the last few hours, the IDF did not strike in the Humanitarian Area in al-Mawasi.”

Palestinians flee the area of Tal al-Sultan in Rafah with their belongings following renewed Israeli strikes in the city in the southern Gaza Strip on May 28, 2024. (Eyad Baba/AFP)

The war in Gaza started with Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 252 were taken hostage. Israel has vowed to topple the terror group’s regime in Gaza and secure the release of the hostages.

Eight months of fighting have caused enormous damage to Gaza’s infrastructure and led to a humanitarian crisis that aid groups and the UN say is plunging areas of the coastal enclave into famine.

In a further setback, part of a US military’s pier off Gaza broke off, rendering it temporarily inoperable, two US officials said, the latest blow to efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to Gazans.

The US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said bad weather was believed to be the reason that the part had broken off. They did not say how big the part was or speculate on how long it would take for the pier to resume operations.

It came after over the weekend, four vessels involved in operating the pier drifted away and ran aground on Israeli beaches.

The pier was announced by US President Joe Biden in March and involved the military assembling the floating structure off the coast. Estimated to cost $320 million for the first 90 days and involve about 1,000 US service members, it went into operation two weeks ago.

Since the pier began operations, the UN has transported 137 trucks of aid from the pier — the equivalent of 900 metric tons — said a UN World Food Programme spokesperson.

Times of Israel staff and Agencies contributed to this report.

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