Israeli Airstrike and Egyptian Guard’s Death Ratchet Up Tensions

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(Bloomberg) -- The killing of an Egyptian soldier in a clash with Israeli troops at a Gaza border crossing on Monday further inflamed regional tensions after an Israeli strike killed an estimated 45 Palestinians at a camp for displaced people.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the airstrike Sunday at a tent camp northwest of the Gazan city of Rafah a “tragic mistake” as international condemnation grew. The death toll, reported by the Hamas-run health ministry, included 12 women and eight children.

“Despite our utmost efforts not to harm innocent civilians, last night there was a tragic mistake,” Netanyahu said Monday in an address to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Israel said its attack was based on “precise intelligence” and that it killed two “senior” officials from Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

With images of the strike’s aftermath and casualties circulating widely, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “outraged.” Qatar, a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, added it would hinder talks to agree a cease-fire and get hostages released.

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The White House said in a statement that images of innocent civilians killed in the strike were “heartbreaking.” Axios reported that the Biden administration is reviewing whether the strike violated a US “red line” on Israel’s conduct of the war.

The incident follows a series of events that underline how pressure on Israel to end the war is growing. There was an International Court of Justice ruling last Friday that most interpreted as ordering a halt to military activities in the Gazan city. The chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as leaders of Hamas.

On Tuesday, Spain, Ireland and Norway are set to formally recognize a Palestinian state, in defiance of Israel’s wishes.

“The world is increasingly unwilling to accept the Israeli premise that anything goes and that it will try and annihilate Hamas no matter the humanitarian fallout and the consequences for Palestinian civilians,” Hasan Alhasan, senior fellow for Middle East policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said to Bloomberg Television on Tuesday.

Yet there’s little sign Israel will change its strategy because of the pressure. That’s in part because the US, its main ally, continues to “shield” it from real repercussions, Alhasan said.

Separately, Egypt’s military confirmed that one of its guards died at the Rafah border crossing Monday. The Israel Defense Forces said that “a shooting incident occurred on the Egyptian border” and discussions with Egypt were ongoing. It didn’t give more details.

Israeli troops started operations around the outskirts of Rafah, which lies in southern Gaza, early this month. Netanyahu has said Israel will attack the city because it’s the last bastion of Hamas, an Iran-backed Islamist group, and several thousand of its fighters are lodged there.

The US and other countries fear mass casualties among the Palestinian civilians in Rafah and have urged Israel to cancel or sharply curtail an assault.

Israel and the United Nations say that in the past three weeks around one million civilians have fled Rafah, with Israeli forces urging them to move to tented camps elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. The city’s population had swelled to about 1.4 million before then as it was one of the few safe zones in Gaza.

“Israel has a right to go after Hamas, and we understand this strike killed two senior Hamas terrorists who are responsible for attacks against Israeli civilians,” the US National Security Council said in a statement. “But as we’ve been clear, Israel must take every precaution possible to protect civilians.”

The US and others have also voiced concerns about an Israeli attack on Rafah worsening ties with Egypt. The two Middle Eastern countries signed a peace deal in 1979, which is seen as crucial to Israel’s security. Egypt was the first Arab state to recognize Israel.

Egypt has been highly vocal in its criticism of the war in Gaza and consistently called on Israel to agree to a cease-fire.

The conflict began when Hamas fighters stormed into Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting 250. Israel’s counterattack has killed some 35,000 Gazans, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Netanyahu says Israel won’t stop until it achieves “total victory” in the form of Hamas’s surrender or destruction as a military force. Hamas is proving resilient, however. While its lost thousands of fighters, around 8,000 are estimated to still be lodged in Rafah and many senior leaders are yet to be captured or killed.

“Hamas has been quite successful in denying Israel a strategic victory in Gaza,” said Alhasan. “Hamas continues to resurface in areas that had been previously been cleared by the Israeli military. It continues to mount complex operations using drones and other equipment. It continues to be able to launch rockets deep into Israeli territory. That sends a clear message that Hamas is here to stay and it’ll be very difficult for Israel to totally eradicate it.”

--With assistance from Justin Sink, Lara Sanli, Sarah Halls and Joumanna Bercetche.

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