May 27, 2024 - World

White House assessing if Israel violated "red line" with Rafah strike

Palestinians at a tent camp in Rafah

Palestinians gather at the site of the Israeli strike on the tent camp in Rafah. Photo: Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is still assessing whether an Israeli strike that killed at least 45 displaced Palestinians at a tent camp in Rafah on Sunday is a violation of President Biden's "red line," two U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: Biden threatened earlier this month to suspend the delivery of some U.S.-made offensive weapons if Israel entered population centers in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza viewed as Hamas' last stronghold.

  • U.S. officials later explained that a humanitarian crisis as a result of the mass displacement of civilians from Rafah could also constitute a violation of Biden's red line.

The big picture: The airstrike was the deadliest incident in Rafah since Israel began its offensive in the city in early May, with health officials in Hamas-run Gaza reporting that women and children were among those killed.

Driving the news: The Israel Defense Forces announced on Monday that it opened an operational investigation into the airstrike. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the civilian deaths "a tragic mistake."

  • A U.S. official said the White House is in the process of determining what exactly happened in order to decide if the circumstances warrant U.S. action.
  • A White House National Security Council spokesperson told Axios that the Biden administration is actively engaging the IDF and partners on the ground to assess what happened.

What they're saying: "The devastating images following the IDF strike in Rafah last night that killed dozens of innocent Palestinians are heartbreaking. Israel has a right to go after Hamas ... but as we've been clear, Israel must take every precaution possible to protect civilians," the spokesperson said.

Behind the scenes: In the days before the catastrophic air strike, White House officials felt they had managed to significantly influence Israel's operational plans for Rafah in a way that would prevent mass civilian casualties, according to three U.S. officials.

  • When White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan was in Israel last week, he held several hours of discussions with senior Israeli officials about the Rafah operation.
  • Those talks included a detailed briefing from Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevi.

A senior U.S. official said Sullivan felt that many of the administration's concerns were addressed in Israel's updated plans for Rafah, and that it was possible to see how an operation could be conducted without crossing Biden's "red lines."

  • This assessment led to the U.S. softening its opposition to the IDF's expansion of its Rafah operations, which included Sunday's air strike.
  • A U.S. official said the Rafah incident is likely to increase political pressure on Biden to change his policy toward the war in Gaza.

Zoom in: The IDF investigation will be conducted by a special unit tasked with investigating such incidents before the military's Advocate General decides whether to open a criminal probe.

  • Israel's government says the IDF General Staff's Fact-Finding and Assessment Mechanism is an independent body.

Between the lines: The IDF said the strike was carried out based on prior intelligence that pointed to the presence of senior Hamas officials who were planning attacks in the West Bank.

  • An Israeli defense official said the strike was conducted by a fighter jet that used "two munitions with a reduced warhead," which they said are intended specifically for a strike of these types of targets.
  • The official said the bombs were dropped roughly 40 meters from the tent camp and most likely caused the fire that killed dozens of Palestinians.

"Before the strike, a number of steps were taken to reduce the risk of harming uninvolved civilians during the strike, including conducting aerial surveillance, the deployment of precise munitions by the Israeli air force, and additional intelligence," the IDF said.

  • "Based on these measures, it was assessed that there would be no expected harm to uninvolved civilians. The IDF regrets any harm to uninvolved civilians during combat."

What to watch: Tensions between Israel and Egypt over Rafah escalated Monday when an Egyptian soldier opened fire at Israeli forces on the Palestinian side of the border and was shot dead.

  • Both the IDF and the Egyptian military said they are conducting a joint investigation into the incident.
  • A clash between Israel and Egypt was one of the main concerns the Biden administration about a possible Rafah operation.
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