Did Rafah Tent Tragedy Cross Biden’s Red Line?

Some 45 are dead in what Israel calls a "tragic accident."

AFP (“Israel faces global outcry over Rafah strike that set tent city ablaze“):

Israel faced a wave of international condemnation Monday over a strike that Gaza officials said killed 45 people when it set off a fire that ripped through a tent city for displaced Palestinians.

Israel said it was looking into the “tragic accident” and its impact on civilians after the latest mass casualty event in the Gaza war, which has raged since October 7.

Adding to already heightened tensions since Israel launched a ground operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah in early May, the Israeli and Egyptian militaries reported a “shooting incident” Monday that killed one Egyptian guard in the border area between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip.

Both forces said they were investigating.

Israel’s military said Sunday evening’s attack in the southern Rafah area had targeted and killed two senior Hamas operatives — but it also sparked a fire that Palestinians and many Arab countries condemned as a “massacre”.

A US National Security Council spokesperson said Israel “must take every precaution possible to protect civilians”.

The Israeli military said it was launching a probe.

“There is no safe place in Gaza. This horror must stop,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres posted on social media, as diplomats said the UN Security Council will convene Tuesday in an emergency session to discuss the attack.

[…]

Israel launched the attack on Rafah late Sunday, hours after Hamas unleashed a barrage of rockets at the Tel Aviv area, most of which were intercepted.

Israel’s army said its aircraft “struck a Hamas compound in Rafah” and killed Yassin Rabia and Khaled Nagar, senior officials for the militant group in the occupied West Bank.

Gaza’s civil defence agency said the strike ignited a fire that tore through a displacement centre in northwestern Rafah near a facility of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

“We saw charred bodies and dismembered limbs … We also saw cases of amputations, wounded children, women and the elderly,” said civil defence agency official Mohammad al-Mughayyir.

Axios (“White House assessing if Israel violated ‘red line’ with Rafah strike“):

The Biden administration is still assessing whether an Israeli strike that killed at least 45 displaced Palestinians at a tent camp in Rafah on Sunday is a violation of President Biden’s “red line,” two U.S. officials told Axios.

Why it matters: Biden threatened earlier this month to suspend the delivery of some U.S.-made offensive weapons if Israel entered population centers in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza viewed as Hamas’ last stronghold.

[…]

Driving the news: The Israel Defense Forces announced on Monday that it opened an operational investigation into the airstrike. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the civilian deaths “a tragic mistake.”

[…]

What they’re saying: “The devastating images following the IDF strike in Rafah last night that killed dozens of innocent Palestinians are heartbreaking. Israel has a right to go after Hamas … but as we’ve been clear, Israel must take every precaution possible to protect civilians,” the [US NSC] spokesperson said.

Behind the scenes: In the days before the catastrophic air strike, White House officials felt they had managed to significantly influence Israel’s operational plans for Rafah in a way that would prevent mass civilian casualties, according to three U.S. officials.

[…]

Between the lines: The IDF said the strike was carried out based on prior intelligence that pointed to the presence of senior Hamas officials who were planning attacks in the West Bank.

  • An Israeli defense official said the strike was conducted by a fighter jet that used “two munitions with a reduced warhead,” which they said are intended specifically for a strike of these types of targets.
  • The official said the bombs were dropped roughly 40 meters from the tent camp and most likely caused the fire that killed dozens of Palestinians.

“Before the strike, a number of steps were taken to reduce the risk of harming uninvolved civilians during the strike, including conducting aerial surveillance, the deployment of precise munitions by the Israeli air force, and additional intelligence,” the IDF said.

  • “Based on these measures, it was assessed that there would be no expected harm to uninvolved civilians. The IDF regrets any harm to uninvolved civilians during combat.”

Objectively, a tent in the vicinity of a legitimate military target catching fire is collateral damage. But Israel is not starting with the presumption of a good faith actor, given that the Biden administration warned that attacking Rafah would cross a “red line” and the ICJ has ordered a halt to the operation.

Biden has grown increasingly exasperated with Netanyahu’s belligerence and there is a lot of pressure from within the Democratic coalition—indeed, within his own administration—to stop supporting this war. But, as I noted at the time, drawing red lines one doesn’t intend to act upon is foolish.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    Whether this passes the red line test or not, the coverage of this made me realize we have completed a generational change in how Israel is viewed in the US. As you said

    Israel is not starting with the presumption of a good faith actor

    I think that is true, but I also think this represents the crystallization of a 20-30 year shift. Before the successful assassination of Rabin I think a majority of Americans presumed good intentions on Israel’s part, but that has been eroded in the years since. Setting Evangelicals aside, since they’ve always had a bizarre and twisted association with Israel, the automatic support for Israel has eroded, either by older Americans aging out, erosion of trust by those of us in the middle, or outright presumption of bad intent by the younger generation.

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  2. steve says:

    Israel still gets mostly unqualified support. What has changed is the willingness to support Israel. IMO that started or at least accelerated when Netanyahu decided to take sides in US politics. That overlaps with the evangelicals supporting Israel.

    Steve

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    @steve:

    Israel still gets mostly unqualified support. What has changed is the willingness to support Israel.

    I don’t see what you are driving at here?

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  4. steve says:

    Oops, meant to say what has changed is the willingness to criticize Israel.

    Steve

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  5. Barry says:

    @MarkedMan: perhaps the government vs the nation.

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  6. Assad K says:

    “mistake”?
    I mean, we know the targeting AI is ok with 20-25 civvies per target killed, so if they did actually kill 2 Hamas operatives the collateral damage is perfectly within acceptable parameters.

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  7. JKB says:

    Meanwhile, Biden’s $320million US taxpayer pier to Gaza has washed up on, thankfully, Israeli beaches. It’s okay, most of the 1000 tons of aid they did get to the shore was stolen and for the rest they are looking for alternate routes from the warehouses to get aid to actual Gazan civilians.

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  8. DrDaveT says:

    Quoting from a book I read recently, talking about a proposed engineering approach:

    “If you do it that way, there’s going to be an incident.”
    “Not an accident?”
    “If you can predict it, it’s not an accident.”

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    That was actually an interesting video link. What a fuck up, caused primarily by an obsession with not allowing any American boot to touch the beach, still less American vehicles. The guy said several times that an Army warrant officer in that MOS would have known better. My father was that guy, now in a home with dementia, sadly.

    If we’d get over the boots-on-the-ground obsession we could be off-loading supplies easily. See: D-Day, 1943.

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  10. Andy says:

    It’s not clear yet what happened in Rafah. Israel says it struck the two Hamas commanders about a kilometer or so away, not the humanitarian area, and it published a signal intercept of reportedly two Hamas personnel saying the explosions in the camp were Hamas munitions. It says it will have satellite imagery out showing all the locations soon.

    Might Israel be lying? Sure. But this might explain the Biden administration’s rather muted response and it sure wouldn’t be the first time Hamas stored weapons in a humanitarian area. In any event, it’s probably a good idea for everyone to keep their powder dry until we have more facts.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I have to wonder who sold the President on this idea. I didn’t know anything about JLOTs when this idea first came out, but the idea seemed good to me at the time. But now that I’ve read what the experts have to say, this system is designed for calm waters and low sea states, which does not describe an unprotected shore like that entire stretch of coast. The pier has had constant problems from the beginning due to rough seas.

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  11. a country lawyer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think you meant 1944. June 6, 1944

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  12. a country lawyer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Actually, floating docks were used at the Normandy beachhead. One of the problems with Normandy as the point of invasion was that there were no large port facilities for unloading men and material. The solution was the creation of two floating docks called “Mulberrys”. One, like the dock at Gaza was destroyed by storms soon after the landings but the other was used for nearly a year after the landings before being decommissioned.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @a country lawyer:
    I’m sorry, I got that wrong: it was C-Day. A year earlier. They were able to land and arrange a strategic trade with the Maquis: cigarettes for cheese. (Hence the C). Mostly Emmental, that’s the local cheese, but the OSS guys who came ashore mistook it for Swiss cheese, and were horrified at what they assumed was a terrible navigation error. They raced back to Britain and the whole thing was covered up.

    The guy in the YouTube pointed out that they’d scuttled ships to act as breakwaters. Better planned all the way round.

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  14. a country lawyer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Careful, Michael. Operation cheese is still classified. Official Secrets Act and all that.

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  15. DK says:

    But Israel is not starting with the presumption of a good faith actor

    Understatement. It’s a problem for Israel that Netanyahu and other government ministers are known to be dishonest, terroristic thugs — from getting Rabin assasinated to fluffing up Hamas. That’s why Netanyahu had to align himself with MAGA. He’s a failure as a leader and a human being, no credibility with decent people.

    His puppets are looking as foolish as Putin’s. And Trump’s.

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  16. Moosebreath says:

    @a country lawyer:

    “Official Secrets Act and all that.”

    In the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby from the Yes, Minister series, “The purpose of the Official Secrets Act is not to protect secrets. It’s to protect officials”.

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  17. gVOR10 says:

    @DrDaveT: Before I retired I did some sports car racing. I used the word “incident” rather than “accident’ for exactly that reason. It’s not an accident if you went into the situation knowing there was a significant chance it could happen.

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  18. gVOR10 says:

    I see there are now claims it was secondary explosions of Hamas ammunition that set the tent on fire. If true, I suppose it mitigates Israeli responsibility. But we’ve seen IDF ethics at work for years. We only intended to kill the one terrorist with the hellfire missile. We didn’t intend to kill the dozen people who died in adjacent apartments so they don’t count.

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