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Israeli attack on Rafah tent camp kills 45, prompts global outcry

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CAIRO/JERUSALEM -

An Israeli airstrike triggered a massive blaze killing 45 people in a tent camp in the Gaza city of Rafah, officials said on Monday, prompting an outcry from global leaders who urged the implementation of a World Court order to halt the assault.

In scenes grimly familiar from a war in its eighth month, Palestinian families rushed to hospitals to prepare their dead for burial after the strike late on Sunday night set tents and rickety metal shelters ablaze.

Israel said initial investigations showed an attack against commanders of the Hamas militant group set off the fire.

Survivors said families were preparing to sleep when the strike hit.

"We were praying...and we were getting our children's beds ready to sleep. There was nothing unusual, then we heard a very loud noise, and fire erupted around us," said Umm Mohamed Al-Attar, a Palestinian mother in a red headscarf.

"All the children started screaming... The sound was terrifying; we felt like the metal was about to collapse on us, and shrapnel fell into the rooms."

The attack took place in the Tel Al-Sultan neighborhood, where thousands were sheltering after Israeli forces began a ground offensive in the east of Rafah over two weeks ago.

Video footage obtained by Reuters showed a fire raging in the darkness and people screaming in panic. A group of young men tried to haul away sheets of corrugated iron and a hose from a single fire truck began to douse the flames.

More than half of the dead were women, children, and elderly people, health officials in Hamas-run Gaza said, adding that the death toll was likely to rise from people with severe burns.

Israel's military said Sunday's strike, based on "precise intelligence," had eliminated Hamas' chief of staff for the second and larger Palestinian territory, the West Bank, plus another official behind attacks on Israelis.

That followed the interception of eight rockets fired towards Israel from the Rafah area.

Israel has kept up attacks despite a ruling by the top U.N. court on Friday ordering it to stop, arguing that the court's ruling grants it some scope for military action there.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "outraged" over Israel's latest attacks. "These operations must stop. There are no safe areas in Rafah for Palestinian civilians," he said on X.

Germany's foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the International Court of Justice ruling must be respected. "International humanitarian law applies for all, also for Israel's conduct of the war," Baerbock said.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike where displaced people were staying in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, May 27, 2024. (Jehad Alshrafi / AP Photo)

No safe zone

By daylight, the camp was a smoking wreckage of tents, twisted metal and charred belongings.

Women wept and men held prayers beside bodies in shrouds.

Sitting beside bodies of his relatives, Abed Mohammed Al-Attar said Israel lied when it told residents they would be safe in Rafah's western areas. His brother, sister-in-law and several other relatives were killed in the blaze.

"The army is a liar. There is no security in Gaza. There is no security, not for a child, an elderly man, or a woman. Here he (my brother) is with his wife, they were martyred," he said.

"What have they done to deserve this? Their children have been orphaned."

Hospitals in Rafah, including the International Committee of the Red Cross field hospital, were unable to handle all the wounded, so some were moved to hospitals in Khan Younis further north in Gaza for treatment, medics said.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs based in the West Bank condemned "the heinous massacre."

Israeli tanks continued to bombard eastern and central areas of the city in southern Gaza on Monday, killing eight, local health officials said. In Al-Nuseirat camp in central Gaza Strip, an Israeli attack killed three Palestinian police officers, Gaza's Hamas-run interior ministry said.

More than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's offensive, Gaza's health ministry says. Israel launched the operation after Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israeli communities on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel says it wants to root out Hamas fighters holed up in Rafah and rescue hostages it says are being held in the area.

But it faces global condemnation for failing to spare civilian lives.

"On top of the hunger, on top of the starvation, the refusal to allow aid in sufficient volumes, what we witnessed last night is barbaric," Ireland's Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said.

Egypt condemned the Israeli military's "deliberate bombing of the tents of displaced people," state media reported, describing it as a blatant violation of international law.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also condemned the Israeli attack and Qatar said the Rafah strike could hinder efforts to mediate a ceasefire and hostage exchange.

Israeli tanks have probed around the edges of Rafah, near the crossing point from Gaza into Egypt, since May 6 and have entered some of its eastern districts.

(Additional Dan Williams and James Mackenzie in Jerusalem; Jana Choukeir and Clauda Tanios and Mohammed Salem; Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Geneva; Tassilo Hummel; Writing by Ros Russell Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean)

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