Israeli airstrike, Egyptian guard’s death ratchet up tensions

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 airstrike killed an estimated 45 Palestinians at a camp for displaced people.

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. “We are investigating the incident and will obtain a conclusion because this is our policy.”

Israel said the airstrike was based on “precise intelligence” and 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,” while 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.

Separately, Egypt’s military confirmed that one of its guards died at the Rafah border crossing Monday. The Israel Defense Forces said, “a shooting incident occurred on the Egyptian border,” and discussions with Egypt were ongoing, without giving more details. 

Israeli leaders said the border incident is also under investigation. 

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 that sparked the conflict when it attacked Israel in October, 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 to prevent harm. The White House said Monday it was “actively engaging” with the IDF and partners in the region to better assess what had occurred. 

“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 has been highly vocal 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. –BLOOMBERG