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Netanyahu says deadly Israeli attack in Rafah was the result of a ‘tragic misfortune’

Tel Aviv, Israel — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that the Israeli attack in the southern Gaza city of Rafah was a “tragic disaster” that set a camp housing displaced Palestinians on fire and killed at least 45 people, according to local officials.

The strike only deepened the growing international criticism Israel has faced over its war with Hamas, with even its closest allies expressing outrage at the deaths of civilians. Israel insists it abides by international law, even amid scrutiny from the world’s most important courts, one of which last week demanded an end to the Rafah offensive.

Netanyahu did not explain the error in detail. The Israeli army initially claimed to have carried out a precision airstrike on Hamas territory, killing two senior fighters. After details of the strike and fire were released, the military said it had launched an investigation into the civilian deaths.

Sunday night’s attack, which appeared to be one of the deadliest of the war, helped raise the total death toll from the war in Palestine to more than 36,000, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants in its statistics.

“Despite our best efforts not to harm innocent civilians, a tragic tragedy occurred last night,” Netanyahu said Monday in a speech to the Israeli parliament. “We are investigating the incident and will draw conclusions as that is our policy.”

Mohammed Abuassa, who arrived at the scene in the northwestern Tel al-Sultan district, said rescuers were “pulling people out in an unbearable condition.”

“We pulled out the children who were in pieces. We pulled out young and old people. The fire in the camp was unreal,” he said.

At least 45 people were killed, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health and the Palestinian Red Crescent emergency services. The ministry said the victims included at least 12 women, eight children and three elderly adults, while the bodies of another three were burned beyond recognition.

In a separate statement, the Egyptian military said one of its soldiers was shot dead during an exchange of fire in the Rafah area, without providing further details. Israel said it was in contact with Egyptian authorities and both sides said they were investigating.

A preliminary investigation showed that the soldier responded to an exchange of fire between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters, Egyptian state television Qahera TV reported. Egypt warned that Israel’s incursion into Rafah could threaten the two countries’ decades-old peace treaty.

The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency closed meeting on the situation in Rafah for Tuesday afternoon at the request of Algeria, the Arab representative on the council, two council diplomats told The Associated Press ahead of the official announcement.

Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city on the border with Egypt, was home to more than a million people – about half of Gaza’s population – displaced from other parts of the territory. Most have fled once again since Israel launched a so-called limited invasion there earlier this month. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd into squalid tent camps in and around the city.

Elsewhere in Rafah, the director of Kuwait Hospital, one of the last functioning medical centers in the city, said the hospital was closing and workers were moving to a field hospital. Dr. Suhaib al-Hamas said the decision was made after two health workers were killed at the entrance to the hospital on Monday.

Netanyahu says Israel must destroy what he believes are the last Hamas battalions in Rafah. On Sunday, a militant group fired a hail of rockets from the city toward densely populated central Israel, setting off sirens but causing no injuries.

The attack on Rafah has sparked a new wave of condemnation, even from Israel’s strongest supporters.

The US National Security Council said in a statement that the “devastating images” of the attack on Rafah were “heartbreaking.”

French President Emmanuel Macron was more blunt, stating in a post on X “these operations must end.” “There are no safe areas for Palestinian civilians in Rafah. I call for full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire,” he wrote.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry, which has been a staunch supporter of Israel for decades, said “the images of charred bodies, including children, resulting from the Rafah airstrike are unbearable.”

“The exact circumstances must be clarified and the investigation announced by the Israeli army must now take place quickly,” the ministry added. “Finally, better protection for civilians must be ensured.”

Qatar, a key mediator in efforts to secure a ceasefire and free hostages held by Hamas, said the Rafah strike could “impede” talks. Negotiations, which appear to be resuming, have repeatedly failed over Hamas’ demands for a lasting truce and the withdrawal of Israeli forces, terms that Israeli leaders have publicly rejected.

Israel’s top military official, Maj. Gen. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, said authorities were investigating the Rafah strike and that the military deplored the civilian deaths.

In a speech at a conference of Israeli lawyers, Tomer-Yerushalmi said Israel has opened 70 criminal investigations into possible violations of international law, including civilian deaths, conditions at a detention center for suspected militants and the deaths of some prisoners in Israeli custody. She added that cases of property crimes and looting are also being investigated.

Israel has long maintained that it has an independent judiciary capable of investigating and prosecuting abuses. But human rights groups say Israeli authorities routinely fail to fully investigate violence against Palestinians and that even if soldiers are held accountable, the punishment is usually light.

Israel has denied the genocide charges brought against it by South Africa at the International Court of Justice. Last week, a court ordered Israel to halt its offensive in Rafah, a ruling it has no power to enforce.

Separately, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as three Hamas leaders, over alleged war-related crimes. The ICC only intervenes when it considers that a state is unable or unwilling to properly prosecute such crimes.

Israel says it is doing everything it can to respect the laws of war. Israeli leaders also say they are dealing with an enemy that makes no such commitment, settles in civilian areas and refuses to unconditionally release Israeli hostages.

Hamas sparked the war with an attack on Israel on October 7, in which Palestinian fighters killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and captured about 250 hostages. Hamas still holds about 100 hostages and the remains of about 30 others, though most of the rest were released during a ceasefire last year.

About 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have fled their homes. There is widespread famine, and UN officials say famine is rampant in some areas.

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Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller in Washington, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Colleen Barry in Rome contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war