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Israel deflects blame for fire that killed 45 Palestinians in Rafah, ignited global outrage

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The massive fire that killed at least 45 Palestinians at a temporary refugee camp near the besieged southern Gaza city of Rafah was not caused by a direct Israeli airstrike on the encampment, the Israeli military said Tuesday.

Military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said a preliminary investigation revealed Sunday’s airstrike hit a “closed compound” in Rafah about a mile from the humanitarian tent camp, established by Israel for Palestinians fleeing the military operation in the city. Hagari said that, while it was too early to say for certain, Israel believes the strike that sparked the fire was likely caused by a secondary explosion.

“Our munition alone could not have ignited a fire this size,” Hagari said.

Hagari said it was possible that weapons stored near the intended target may have ignited the fire. Hagari said Israel’s target was two Hamas militants responsible for the deaths of “many Israelis” in operations in the West Bank and elsewhere stretching back more than a decade. Both were killed in the operation, he said.

The Israeli airstrike Sunday was one of the deadliest single incidents in the 8-month-old Israel-Hamas war. Medics and witnesses described scenes of horror as the fire tore through the camp.

“We saw charred bodies and dismembered limbs,” Mohammad al-Mughayyir, a Gaza civil defense agency official told AFP. “We also saw cases of amputations, wounded children, women and the elderly.”

UN’s top court: Israel must halt offensive in Rafah. It is unlikely to comply

Developments:

∎ A typical person in Rafah has access to about one litre of water per day, “catastrophically below any emergency level,” UNICEF spokesperson James Elder said.

∎ At least 26 more Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in Rafah since Sunday’s tragedy, the Gaza Health Ministry said Tuesday.

∎ In Jabalia, a large refugee camp in northern Gaza, Israeli forces have been engaged in fierce fighting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters, residents said. Israel had completed its assault on northern Gaza months ago but has gone back for what the military has called “mop-up” work as militants re-emerge there.

The last functioning hospital in Rafah could be shut down and a substantial number of deaths could result if Israel presses ahead with a full incursion into the city, a World Health Organization official said Tuesday. Richard Peeperkorn, the WHO representative for Gaza and the West Bank, speaking on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, said of the three hospitals in Rafah, only one remained “barely functional” due to the security situation and difficulty getting medical supplies through border crossings.

A contingency plan involving treating patients in a string of ill-equipped field hospitals “will not prevent what we expect − substantial additional mortality and morbidity,” Pepperhorn warned.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed late Monday to continue fighting in Gaza “until we raise the flag of victory” despite the civilian deaths he described as a “tragic mishap.” But the tragedy drew widespread international condemnation and came after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt military operations in Rafah that could further harm Palestinian civilians. The ICJ order is legally binding but the Hague, Netherlands-based court, has no enforcement powers.

Algeria called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, expected Tuesday, over the Rafah strike. Israel pressed ahead with its assault on Rafah, which it has repeatedly characterized as limited in scope and necessary to root out Hamas from one of its last remaining strongholds in Gaza.

The Israeli military on Tuesday announced creation of an advisory committee to examine prison conditions for thousands of Palestinians suspected of ties to terrorism. Israel’s chief military prosecutor recommended the review amid complaints from Palestinian advocacy groups of conditions that range from random beatings to malnutrition. The Israeli military statement cites an “unprecedented number of detainees and the shortage of incarceration places,” adding that many inmates are being held for longer periods of time than had been expected.

‘The advisory committee will examine the conditions of incarceration, the ways of treating inmates, the proper management of the incarceration facilities and their compliance with the provisions of the law and the rules of international law,” the statement said.

Israel’s military said in a statement Tuesday it was “conducting precise operational activity” in Rafah “based on intelligence.” Reports said western parts of Gaza’s southernmost city were coming under heavy bombardment. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said Tuesday that about 1 million people have fled Rafah in the past three weeks.

The Biden administration has come under pressure to curb the flow of money and weapons it sends to Israel’s military. It has paused shipments of some bombs for Israel over concerns they could be used in Rafah. In media interviews, President Joe Biden had appeared to indicate that he would withhold additional U.S. military aid for Israel if its military entered Rafah’s major population centers.

‘I’m not sure this helps us much’: European countries are recognizing an official Palestinian state

A decision by Ireland, Norway and Spain to recognize an independent Palestinian state, which officially takes effect Tuesday, comes nearly eight months into Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and decades into one of the world’s most high-profile and intractable conflicts, between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel has reacted angrily to the recognitions. It has recalled its ambassadors from Dublin, Oslo and Madrid. Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, has accused all three countries of aiding Hamas.

Three-quarters of the world’s 195 countries − 143 U.N. member states plus the Vatican and Western Sahara − say Palestine is a state. What remains to be determined is whether all those recognitions, which the U.S. and larger European nations have not joined, will bring full statehood closer and improve the lives of Palestinians.

Mai’a Cross, a professor of political science at Boston’s Northeastern University, said the recent European recognitions are essentially saying they recognize the “aspirations” of a future Palestinian state.

“You could say technically, in legal terms, this is pure symbolism. But I do think it is more than that because it’s not as though there’s only symbolism versus legality. There’s politics − international relations is full of politics.”

Contributing: Reuters

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