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Israel Pushes Into Rafah as Displaced Palestinians Search for Safety

Israel’s military said it was pressing on with its ground assault in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday despite mounting international outrage over its operations there, including an airstrike over the weekend that killed dozens of civilians.

The military said its troops were engaging in close-quarters combat with Hamas fighters and that it had deployed an additional “combat team” to Rafah, without specifying how many more soldiers were sent to the southern city.

The military has said that its strike on Rafah on Sunday — which ignited a deadly fire that killed at least 45 people — targeted a Hamas compound.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said it was a “tragic accident” that civilians in the camp, many of them displaced from other parts of Gaza, had been killed.

His comments, however, did little to quell a chorus of voices demanding accountability and a halt to the fighting, which came amid reports of another deadly strike in nearby Al-Mawasi on Tuesday.

An official in Gaza, Dr. Mohammed Al Moghayer of the Palestinian Civil Defense, said that at least 21 people were killed and dozens injured on Tuesday when strikes hit tents housing displaced people in Al-Mawasi, not far from the city of Rafah. Israel has declared an area of Al-Mawasi a humanitarian safe zone. Tuesday’s strike appeared to occur near the humanitarian zone but not in it, according to videos verified by The New York Times.

The Israeli military, which has previously told civilians to go to Al-Mawasi, said its attack had not been carried out inside the safe zone.

Videos verified by The Times show multiple people dead and injured in an agricultural area of Al-Mawasi where civilians had been sheltering. The footage verified by the Times showed a chaotic scene with women and children screaming over bodies on the ground.

The Times verified the location of the videos by matching footage of the aftermath to satellite imagery of the area, but could not immediately verify whether the damage was caused by an Israeli airstrike.

Around one million people have fled Rafah amid Israel’s assault, according to the United Nations. The exodus from Rafah, once the primary destination for people seeking refuge from fighting in other parts of the enclave, is the latest in a string of displacements since Israel launched a war to dismantle Hamas, the armed group that led the deadly attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Vice President Kamala Harris said on Tuesday that “the word tragic doesn’t even begin to describe” the aftermath of the airstrike on Sunday that ignited the blaze on the camp.

Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, said Tuesday that the United States had expressed “deep concern” to Israel’s government about the strike and asked for more information about the attack and resulting conflagration.

“Israel has said that it might have been that there was a Hamas ammo dump near the area where they took the strike,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s a very important factual question that needs to be answered.”

Mr. Miller said the U.S. position is that “we do not want to see major military operations take place” in Rafah on a scale similar to previous Israeli attacks in Khan Younis and Gaza City. “At this point, we have not seen a military operation on the scale of those previous operations,” Mr. Miller said.

Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, on Tuesday cited the “deeply distressing” scenes from Sunday’s strike on the encampment in Rafah — footage of which featured bodies charred beyond recognition — in calling for a “swift, comprehensive” investigation.

The Israeli military’s spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told a news conference on Tuesday that an investigation was examining “all possibilities” to determine what had caused the fire at the camp on Sunday, including whether weapons had been “stored in a compound next to our target.”

Israeli jets had fired the “smallest munitions” that they could use, he said, insisting that “our munitions alone could not have ignited a fire of this size.”

Even when the cause of the fire is established, Admiral Hagari said, “it won’t make this situation any less tragic.”

Admiral Hagari gave no indication that the Israeli military would halt its operation in Rafah, from which Hamas had launched rockets earlier on Sunday, setting off sirens in Tel Aviv for first time in months. He did not directly address a question from a reporter about whether tanks had moved into Rafah’s center, saying that Hamas battalions remained in the city and that Israeli forces were operating in a “targeted” way.

China on Tuesday joined a growing number of countries to condemn Israel’s operations. Beijing expressed “serious concern” about the Israeli military’s actions in Rafah, citing an order by the International Court of Justice last week that appeared to call for Israel to stop its military offensive in the city. China “opposes any violation of international law” and “strongly urges Israel to listen to the voice of the international community and stop attacking Rafah,” said Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But the wording of the court’s order — which called on Israel to immediately halt any actions in Rafah, “which may inflict upon the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that would bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” — was ambiguous. Israeli officials have argued that the ruling allowed it to continue fighting in Rafah because the military would not inflict such conditions.

On the ground in and around Rafah, residents reported heavy bombardments.

“It was a bloody and very difficult night,” said Nedal Kuhail, 30, who was preparing on Tuesday afternoon to leave the apartment in the Tal al-Sultan neighborhood of western Rafah, where he had been sheltering with his family since the beginning of the war. “Danger was chasing us from every side.”

Tal al-Sultan is in the same area as the deadly strike that Israel said targeted a Hamas compound on Sunday, killing two of the group’s commanders.

Mr. Kuhail said by phone that an explosion occurred on a lower floor of his building on Monday night, while another apartment nearby was also hit. He said he saw several people who had been killed or wounded. “This prompted us to make the quick decision to leave Rafah in order to survive,” he said.

Mr. Kuhail estimated that more than 85 percent of the remaining people in his area had fled since Tuesday morning, urged on by the terror they faced overnight. Video footage from the Reuters news agency on Tuesday showed people leaving parts of Rafah, some on foot and others on carts, as the sound of blasts and gunfire echoed through the streets.

Mr. Kuhail said he had found an empty warehouse to rent for his family in the Deir al-Balah area of central Gaza. Even though the warehouse is empty and did not have electricity, water or a bathroom, Mr. Kuhail said he was grateful that he at least had a place to go, unlike many others who are fleeing.

Reporting was contributed by Arijeta Lajka, Christiaan Triebert, Iyad Abuheweila, Alexandra Stevenson, Johnatan Reiss, Abu Bakr Bashir and Stephen Crowley

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Nathan
Nathan

Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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