May 28, 2024 - World

Israel claims deadly Rafah blaze caused by secondary explosion

Palestinians inspect damage at the site of an Israeli strike

Palestinians inspect damage at the site of an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on May 27, 2024. Photo: Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Israeli military claimed on Tuesday that the munitions it dropped near a tent camp in Gaza were insufficient to directly cause the large fire that killed at least 45 displaced Palestinians on Sunday, and that a secondary explosion — possibly of a weapons cache — likely caused the blaze.

Why it matters: The airstrike was the deadliest attack on Rafah since Israel began its offensive in the city in early May. The Biden administration is now assessing whether strike was a violation of President Biden's "red lines" over Israel's operations in Rafah.

The victims included women, children and the elderly, according to local health officials in Gaza.

  • Israeli officials said the strike targeted and killed two senior Hamas operatives, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deadly fire a "tragic accident."
  • The incident sparked widespread international condemnation. UN Secretary General António Guterres announced an emergency Security Council meeting and said, "I condemn Israel's actions which killed scores of innocent civilians who were only seeking shelter from this deadly conflict."
  • The White House called the incident "devastating" and reiterated its calls for Israel to take steps to protect civilians.
  • It came days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its military offensive in Rafah.

Driving the news: IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in a briefing in English for the international press that the strike on Sunday was conducted against a "closed structure" that was "away from the tent camp" and where several Hamas officials were hiding.

  • "There are no tents near the structure," he said, while displaying surveillance video from a drone. Hagari said "unforeseen circumstances" led to the fire.
  • He said the IDF used two munitions with small warheads that contained 35 pounds of explosives each. "These are the smallest bombs we have," he claimed. "Our munitions alone could not have ignited a fire of this size."
  • Hagari claimed videos from the incident published on social media suggest "there were secondary explosions" after the IDF strike.
  • The IDF spokesman added that one of the possibilities the IDF is looking into as part of its investigation is that weapons — which he claimed the IDF didn't know about — were being stored in the compound that was targeted, which "exploded and ignited the fire."

Between the lines: Biden threatened earlier this month to suspend the delivery of some U.S.-made offensive weapons if Israel entered population centers in Rafah, and U.S. officials have also said a humanitarian crisis as a result of the mass displacement of civilians from Rafah could also constitute a violation of Biden's red line.

  • Two U.S. officials told Axios the administration is assessing whether Sunday's strike crossed that line.

What they're saying: State department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Israel has the right to go after Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack and it has an obligation to minimize civilian harm in its military operations.

  • Miller said the U.S. reached out to Israel after the strike and fire in Rafah and "expressed our deep concern for what happened, asked for more information and urged them to undertake a full investigation." He added that the U.S. will continue to emphasize to Israel the need to avoid civilian casualties.

White House spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday that the Biden administration isn't changing its support for Israel after the incident in Rafah.

  • "I have no policy changes to speak to. We will see what the Israeli investigation finds," he said when asked if Biden's "red line" had been crossed.
  • Kirby said the Biden administration still opposes a major Israeli ground operation in Rafah and stressed the U.S. hasn't seen what they would consider a major operation at this point.
  • "Should that occur the president might have to make a decision regarding support," he said, adding the Biden administration is concerned that "the way Israel is conducting its operation is further isolating it around the world."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from White House spokesperson John Kirby.

Go deeper