IDF says terror munitions may have caused deadly Rafah blaze

US mourns ‘tragic’ deaths in Rafah strike but stresses Israel didn’t cross red line

Spokespeople say Israeli op in southern Gaza city still more limited than previous ones in Strip, US waiting for full probe on weekend strike before passing further judgement

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents next to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi)
Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents next to an UNRWA facility west of Rafah city, Gaza Strip, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi)

The US said Tuesday that Israel has not yet crossed the red line it laid out earlier this month, after the IDF carried out a strike in Rafah over the weekend that targeted Hamas commanders but also led to the reported deaths of dozens of displaced Palestinian civilians.

Pentagon deputy spokesperson Sabrina Singh said during a briefing that the US continues to view the IDF’s activity in Rafah as “limited in scope” and noted that American “security assistance [to Israel] continues to flow.”

“We don’t want to see a major ground operation in Rafah, we haven’t seen that at this point,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.

“At this point, we have not seen a military operation on the scale of those previous operations,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said. “If you just look at the number of brigades that were in Gaza City and Khan Younis — so far this is a different type of military operation [in Rafah], but it’s something that we are watching very closely.”

On May 8, US President Joe Biden warned that he would halt certain offensive weapons shipments to Israel if the IDF launched a major military offensive in populated parts of Gaza’s southernmost city where nearly 1.5 million Palestinians were then sheltering, after already pausing a planned transfer of bombs over concerns they would be used there.

While still ordering large portions of the city to evacuate, Israel has since altered its military plans for Rafah, conducting targeted operations in specific neighborhoods outside the city center and around the border crossing with Egypt. Last week, the US indicated initial satisfaction with those tailored plans.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike adjacent to where displaced people were staying in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi)

Then on Sunday night, the IDF carried out a strike against two senior Hamas operatives located in the Tel Sultan neighborhood of western Rafah. The strike sparked a fire in an adjacent area where a group of tent shelters were located. Forty-five people were killed, mainly young women and children who were burned alive, according to Hamas health authorities, who said dozens more were injured.

The IDF said Tuesday that a hidden store of terror group weapons may have been the actual cause of the deadly blaze, and that the airstrike which targeted the Hamas commanders in the adjacent area had used small munitions that could not ignite such a fire.

The military suspects that munitions or some other combustible substance it was unaware of caused a secondary explosion and a fire to spread to a tent complex for displaced Palestinians.

“The word tragic doesn’t even begin to describe it,” US Vice President Kamala Harris said in her first public comments about the strike, which were in response to a question from her traveling press pool earlier Tuesday.

Kirby explained that the Sunday strike “exactly does speak to the challenge of military operations in a densely populated area,” while defending the US decision to continue supplying Israel with weaponry amid the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

“We’re giving them the kinds of capabilities they need to defend themselves. Maybe some people have forgotten what happened on the 7th of October, but we haven’t,” Kirby said in a briefing with a combative White House press corps, referring to the Hamas-led terror onslaught that started the ongoing war in Gaza.

“Twelve hundred innocent Israelis slaughtered, mutilated, raped, tortured, and they’re living right next to that kind of still a viable threat, including in Rafah. Do you think Hamas is just gone? They’re not gone from Rafah or from Gaza. If you think they’ve abandoned their genocidal intent toward the nation of Israel — think again, they haven’t. So Israel has every right to not want to live next to that kind of threat. And yes, we’re going to continue to provide them the capabilities to go after it,” he said.

Asked about reports of tanks entering central Rafah, Kirby said the administration was looking into the matter but that one tank would not amount to the major military operation that the US has warned against.

Both Kirby and Miller pointed to Israel’s denial of a subsequent strike in Rafah that Hamas authorities claimed killed 21 civilians in the al-Mawasi humanitarian zone and said the US was asking Jerusalem for further information.

A Palestinian girl – wounded after an Israeli airstrike on what the IDF said was a Hamas compound, adjacent to a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah, late on May 26, 2024 – receives treatment at a hospital in Rafah (Eyad BABA / AFP)

Kirby noted that the strike Israel carried out Sunday was similar to other ones it has conducted in Rafah in recent weeks — ones that also used smaller munitions following requests from the US for a more targeted approach. The Sunday strike had a tragic result, however, and the US is looking for Israel to fully investigate the matter, the White House spokesperson said.

For his part, Miller reiterated that the Biden administration is “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life” that resulted from the attack.

“The pain that those suffering those families are suffering through must be unimaginable, especially those who’ve lost children and those who have lost family members for a repeated number of times,” Miller said.

“As we have said before, Israel has a right to go after the Hamas terrorists responsible for the cold-blooded murder of civilians — as appears to have been Israel’s aim here — and Hamas should stop hiding behind civilians in Gaza. But Israel also has the obligation to do everything possible to minimize civilian harm as it carries out its operations,” Miller added, largely reiterating the same statement issued by a White House National Security Council spokesperson on Monday.

Miller said the US will reserve further judgment on the matter until the IDF completes a full investigation on the matter.

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