Israeli strike on Rafah camp fuels global outrage, calls for cease-fire

JERUSALEM — An Israeli strike that set fire to a displaced persons camp in Rafah — killing an estimated 45 Palestinians and wounding another 200 — has fueled international outrage toward Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and further divided his country over the war efforts.

On top of the global condemnation, Netanyahu is also under attack at home from Israeli officials inside and outside his party calling for a vision to end the war, as he expands a campaign into the southern Gazan city of Rafah despite the U.S. and other allies urging restraint.

The Israeli public is largely supportive of the Israeli military and its campaign to ensure the threat from Hamas is eliminated and hostages kidnapped from Israel during Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7 are returned.

But they are deeply divided over the conduct of the war, as illustrated by the response following the tragedy in Rafah. Amid grisly images of charred bodies and dead children, some segments of Israeli society put the blame on Hamas for operating near civilian sites. But others said the carnage must stop.

Protests against Israel’s war in Gaza took place Tuesday at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, with Jewish and Arab students protesting against the war, and counterprotesters for it, the Times of Israel reported.

This followed protests Monday night in the mixed Jewish and Arab city of Haifa, where Hebrew media reported that about 100 people called for an immediate end to Israel’s military operations. Eight people were arrested in that protest.

Some far-right personalities made fun of the fire as part of the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer — where bonfires are the traditional custom — that took place on the same night as the Rafah strike.

“Toddlers go up in flames, and the public in Israel celebrates, ignores, babbles or yawns – this is what our hell looks like,” Yoana Gonen wrote in an opinion piece for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

“Israel is slowly sinking into a dark abyss, hand in hand with the devastated Gaza.”

Netanyahu described the Rafah fire as tragic, and said Israel is “investigating it thoroughly and will learn from it, as is our policy and longstanding conduct.” Israeli officials reportedly told the U.S. that shrapnel from a targeted strike on senior Hamas leaders struck a fuel tank near a displaced persons camp.

But the resulting carnage underscored international alarm over the conduct of Israel’s military operations, and came only days after a top United Nations court had issued a ruling for Israel to halt its military operations in Rafah.

“These attacks must stop immediately. ICJ [International Court of Justice] orders and IHL [International Humanitarian Law] must be respected by all parties,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote in a statement on the social platform X.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was outraged by the Israeli strikes that killed so many people in Rafah.

“These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians,” he wrote on X.

“I call for full respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire.”

The ICJ ruling is technically binding but largely unenforceable, as Israel is not a party to the court. The U.S. and Israel also argue the ICJ does not have jurisdiction in Gaza.

At the United Nations, Algeria, backed by Slovenia, requested an emergency session of the Security Council to take place Tuesday to discuss the situation in Gaza.

The closed-door meeting could put the U.S. on the spot, where it typically stands as one of Israel’s staunchest defenders — vetoing resolutions it says are biased against Israel. But the administration has also abstained from resolutions calling for Israel to implement a cease-fire, over concern that Israel’s operations in Gaza have gone too far.

By Tuesday morning, the White House had yet to publicly comment on its assessment of the Israeli strike on Rafah. President Biden had earlier warned he would hold back weapons deliveries for Israel if protection for civilian lives are not prioritized in Rafah.

Still, Netanyahu is rejecting calls to halt the war, and on Tuesday Israeli tanks reportedly rolled into central Rafah for the first time. A separate strike killed 21 Palestinians in a cluster of tents near Rafah, in an area where Israel had advised civilians to move for safety, according to Reuters.

Israeli leaders argue that international condemnation is strengthening Hamas’s position in cease-fire negotiations, which are aimed at securing the release of about 125 hostages the U.S.-designated terrorist group has held since it attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

“Let me be clear: I will not yield or surrender. I will not end the war before achieving all our goals. Our fallen heroes will not have died in vain,” Netanyahu said in a speech to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Monday night.

But the U.S. is reportedly working with Qatar to revive negotiations that fell apart earlier this month due to what Israel said were unacceptable terms by Hamas, calling for a full Israeli military withdrawal and a permanent cease-fire.

Other Israeli officials are leaving open the possibility of negotiations to release the hostages — with earlier American proposals calling for a six- to eight-week cease-fire.

“We are making tremendous efforts and will continue to do so, via both kinetic activities and by reaching agreements,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Sunday, referring to hostage negotiations.

But the launch of at least eight rockets toward Tel Aviv on Sunday, which Hamas shot from Rafah about 75 miles away, reinforced among the public and soldiers that Hamas — and its threat to Israel — is far from being eliminated.

“We need to take a deep breath,” an Israeli combat commander overseeing the security of the Netzarim corridor in Gaza told The Hill during an interview Monday.

“We understand that this is going to take long; if we really want to take out the roots of the Hamas, it’s clear that it’s going to take long.”

The Israeli military has established the Netzarim corridor bifurcating the north of the Gaza Strip from the south, which is meant to prevent Hamas from regrouping in the north.

But the strategy is under strain as troops continue to battle pockets of Hamas fighters in the northern city of Jabalia, despite months of operations intended to kill members of the group and destroy their infrastructure.

“You come to the region, you come to one area, you’re clearing it. As soon as you get out, they are going to start and build again some of the momentum,” said the Israeli commander, whose name is withheld under Israeli security protocols. “So this is why it’s going to take long, and that’s part of it.”

Israelis also view the war against Hamas as necessary to deter threats from Iran and its proxy groups in the region, in particular Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s arsenal — with more than 200,000 munitions, according to the Alma Research and Education Center — is viewed as posing one of the most serious threats to Israel’s safety and security than Hamas.

An estimated 60,000 Israelis are evacuated from communities along the northern border under constant attack from rockets, mortars, drones, antitank missiles and more.

“We have Hezbollah in the north. They need to understand that if they dare to do something, that we can do to Lebanon what we did in Gaza,” said an Israeli deputy commander, speaking through a translator to The Hill on Monday, shortly after exiting the Gaza Strip after a few weeks of combat duty.

But along with the resolve to continue the war, there is fatigue.

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza is almost unprecedented in its length — nearly eight months of active combat. Netanyahu has so far held back from describing a vision for a postwar Gaza, roiling debate and political tensions about what direction the war is heading and when it might end.

Signals so far are that Israel is preparing for a long-term security presence in the strip, similar to how it operates in Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

“I don’t think this will be the end of all the wars. It won’t end,” the deputy commander continued.

“[Hamas] chose this war, and we need to pay the price for this. The price for the war, it is always to lose; everyone loses in war,” he said. But added that defeat depends on “who will lose more.”

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