US calls Rafah strike heartbreaking but insists on Israeli right to self-defence

Sunday strike on southern Gaza city killed 45 Palestinians, including children

US President Joe Biden earlier said Washington would not continue providing aid to Israel if it moved forward with a long-threatened invasion of Rafah. EPA
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Israel's strike on a camp for displaced Palestinians in Gaza at the weekend is further confusing US President Joe Biden's stance on operations in Rafah.

A US National Security Council representative called the “devastating images” from the Israeli strike on the southern Gaza city on Sunday night “heartbreaking”, but reasserted Washington's view that “Israel has a right to go after Hamas”.

The official told The National that the Biden administration is “actively engaging" the Israeli military and partners to assess what happened.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the strike – which killed 45 Palestinians, including children – a “tragic mishap” that will be investigated.

The NSC did not respond to The National's questions over whether the claim that the attack was a mistake was credible.

“We understand this strike killed two senior Hamas terrorists who are responsible for attacks against Israeli civilians," the council representative said.

"But as we’ve been clear, Israel must take every precaution possible to protect civilians."

National Security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday: "We still don't believe that a major ground operation in Rafah is warranted.

"We still don't want to see Israel smash into Rafah. We still believe that we haven't seen that."

US President Joe Biden earlier said Washington would not continue providing aid to Israel if it moved forward with a long-threatened invasion of Rafah, but his “red line” has become increasingly blurry amid the continuing military operations there.

The Israeli air strike on a displaced persons camp in Rafah was “horrific” and such incidents must stop, the Pentagon said.

Gruesome images of dead children, charred bodies and relatives looking for loved ones in smouldering debris piles appeared on social media.

“No matter what anyone says, those images, what’s happening on the ground, it’s horrific, it’s heartbreaking and needs to stop,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said.

“It’s absolutely devastating to see the loss of life."

Ms Singh said she did not know if the bomb used in Rafah had been provided by the US and welcomed Israel’s decision to investigate the strike.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a “tragic mistake”.

Ms Singh said Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin frequently talks to his Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and “really emphasises the fact that there needs to be more done to protect innocent lives".

The State Department said US policy on Israel had not changed after the tragic strike.

“We have made clear that if there was a full-scale military operation, there would be some change but as of yet, it's not a change,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

Mr Miller defended Israel amid a hail of questions over the incident.

“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,” he said.

“Hamas should stop hiding behind civilians in Gaza.”

This month, the Biden administration notified the US Congress about a new arms package it planned to deliver to Israel, right after the Pentagon confirmed the pause on a weapons delivery to the country.

The weekend strike reinvigorated calls from a small corner of Mr Biden's Democratic Party to stop military support for Israel.

Progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the strike “an indefensible atrocity” that was carried out “in open defiance” of Mr Biden's red line and international calls for a ceasefire.

A growing number of Washington's western allies are changing their tone on Israel as the war in Gaza drags on and the death toll passed 36,000, according to local health authorities.

After the weekend strike in Rafah, Ireland, Spain and Norway formally recognised Palestinian statehood.

The NSC said Mr Biden “believes a Palestinian state should be realised through direct negotiations between the parties, not through unilateral recognition”, spokeswoman Adrienne Watson told The National.

Meanwhile, news outlets reported on Tuesday that Israeli tanks had reached the centre of Rafah.

Israeli troops are now estimated to occupy 60 per cent of the city, including the hill that overlooks the border with Egypt, according to the BBC.

Willy Lowry, Jihan Abdalla and Thomas Watkins contributed to this report.

Updated: May 28, 2024, 8:16 PM