Western leaders demand end to Rafah operation as Israel defends actions as ethical, justified

The strike was about a mile outside of the humanitarian area that Israel has designated as the "safer zone."

Published: May 28, 2024 11:01pm

Updated: May 29, 2024 10:00am

Western leaders are condemning Israel's operation in Rafah and calling again for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, as Israel and its allies defend the actions that led to the massive fire in the area of refugee tents over the weekend.

"Outraged by the Israeli strikes that have killed many displaced persons in Rafah. These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians," French President Emmanuel Macron said on X, Monday. "I call for full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire."

The Hamas militant-run health agency in Gaza said that 45 people died Sunday as a result of a fire that swept a tent area in Rafah following an Israeli airstrike. Reuters reported 21 casualties.

However, on Tuesday Israel defended its actions and said that the ammunition it used could not have ignited such a fire. Reuters also reported that Israel's military later said in a statement: "Contrary to the reports from the last few hours, the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) did not strike in the Humanitarian Area in Al-Mawasi." 

Condemnation at home and abroad

Condemnation of Israel expanded beyond France, with U.S. politicians chiming in.

"Please, please stop the bombings in Rafah! No more children, no more women, no more civilians should be brutally murdered. Please!" Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., posted on X.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. did not call for a ceasefire, but did blame Israel for the strike, writing: "Deeply saddened by the killing of innocent civilians in Rafah that resulted from a tragic Israeli air strike. Every single hostage must be released. Palestinian civilians must be protected."

Other members of Congress who condemned Israel include Rep. Jamaal Bowmann, D-N.Y.; Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.; Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va.; Rep. Pramilla Jayapal, D-Wash.; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and others.

However, the Biden administration defended Israel's actions in Rafah, while still warning the country to take precautions against civilian deaths.

"Hamas should stop hiding behind civilians in Gaza"

"We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life in Rafah over the weekend," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a press conference Tuesday. "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 the hiding behind civilians in Gaza, but Israel also has the obligation to do everything possible to minimize civilian harm as it carries out these operations."

When pressed as to whether Israel has passed what President Joe Biden calls his "red line" on Rafah, Miller said: "At this point, we have not seen a military operation on the scale of those military operations [in Khan Yunis and Gaza City]."

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby gave a similar defense of Israel during the White House press briefing on Tuesday. 

"As a result of this strike on Sunday, I have no policy changes to speak to. It just happened," he also said.

The "red line" that Biden was referring to was "major ground operations in Rafah proper," Kirby said.

Miller and Kirby both pointed to a preliminary probe from the Israel Defense Forces about the incident in Rafah.

"The smallest bombs" used

IDF spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Tuesday that Israel used the smallest bombs its jets could use to carry out a strike targeting two terrorists who were planning an attack on Israelis and had been responsible for multiple previous attacks.

The strike was about a mile outside of the humanitarian area that Israel calls the "safer zone," and it was nearly 600 feet away from the tents in the war zone, which is the location that Hamas says the IDF hit, according to satellite pictures of the area.  

The strike caused a large fire, but Hagari said, "Our munition alone could not have ignited a fire of this size."

He also said Israel is "looking into all possibilities, including the option that weapons stored in a compound next to our target which we did not know of may have ignited as a result of the strike." 

Additionally, Israel released a conversation it intercepted between two Gazans about the fire, with one person saying, "Yes, this is an ammunition warehouse. I tell you it exploded. ... I mean the Jewish bombing wasn't strong, it was a small missile, because it didn't create a large hole."

Hamas' strategic goal

Some American military experts also chimed in with their input on the situation.

Col. (Ret.) John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at West Point's Modern War Institute, posted on X after the fire: "In case you forgot, the Hamas military strategy of the Israel-Hamas war is not human shields but human sacrifice. They repeatedly say they need as many of their civilians in Gaza to die as possible to achieve their strategic goal of destroying Israel & killing all jews." 

Follow Madeleine Hubbard on X or Instagram.

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