Israel denies striking tent encampment as troops advance on Rafah

Gaza authorities claim 21 people were killed in evacuation zone

Israel’s military has denied striking an evacuation zone near Rafah after health authorities in Gaza claimed that tank shelling had killed 21 people in the camp.

Emergency services in Gaza said four tank shells struck Al-Mawasi tent encampment. Israel had advised people in Rafah to move to the area for safety. According to medical officials in the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave, at least 12 of the dead were women.

The Israeli military said in a statement: “Contrary to the reports from the last few hours, the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] did not strike in the Humanitarian Area in Al-Mawasi.”

The deaths came as Israeli forces continued to advance in Rafah on Tuesday, with residents reporting tanks in the centre of the city for the first time. Troops also advanced along the strategically important Philidelphi route, which runs along the border with the Egyptian Sinai.

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The Israeli military said Hamas compounds and cross-border tunnels were destroyed and many Hamas militants were killed in clashes.

Israeli forces attacked Rafah three weeks ago despite intense international pressure, including from Washington. Some one million residents have fled the southern city to avoid the fighting, most of them refugees from central and northern Gaza who left combat zones earlier during the 235-day conflict.

International unease over the offensive turned to outrage on Sunday after an attack caused a fire in a tented camp in Rafah, killing at least 45 people.

US officials said Tuesday that the Israeli air strike that killed dozens of Palestinians in the southern Gaza Strip was a tragedy but that it did not violate President Joe Biden’s red line for withholding weapons shipments to Israel.

Mr Biden warned earlier this month that the United States would block certain arms transfers if Israel targeted heavily populated areas in Rafah.

John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said the deaths were “devastating” but that the scale of the attack was not enough to change US policy. “We don’t want to see a major ground operation,” Mr Kirby told reporters. “We haven’t seen that.”

The Israeli military on Tuesday released the initial findings of an investigation into the strike, which it said indicated that Hamas munitions stored in the area might have caused the blaze.

IDF spokesperson Rear Adm Daniel Hagari confirmed that two Hamas commanders were killed in the air strike. “The fire that broke out was unexpected and unintended,” he said. “Our munition alone could not have ignited a fire of this size. We are looking into all possibilities, including the option that weapons stored in a compound next to our target, which we did not know about, may have ignited as a result of the strike.”

He also played what he said was a phone call intercepted by Israeli intelligence between two Gaza residents indicating that weapons stored in a nearby compound caught fire.

The attack prompted global criticism of Israel, with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu saying the civilian deaths in the area was a “tragic mistake”.

The UN security council convened an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the Rafah incident. Earlier, UN general secretary general António Guterres condemned Sunday’s strike and called on Israel to allow “the immediate, safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need”.

The US military is expected to formally announce that it is suspending aid deliveries into Gaza via its temporary pier after the ramp connecting the pier to the shore suffered damage amid heavy seas and bad weather.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, more than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began on October 7th last. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and 253 hostages seized in the surprise Hamas attack on that day. It says 125 hostages remain in Hamas captivity but it is not known how many are alive.

Islamic Jihad on Tuesday released a video of Israeli hostage Sasha Popanov, who was kidnapped on October 7th. He begins the short video by saying “in the next few days, you will hear the truth of what happened to me, as well as the other prisoners in Gaza.”

It is not clear when the clip was filmed. His father, Vitali, was murdered on October 7th, and his mother, grandmother and partner were released as part of the previous hostage release deal. – Additional reporting: Reuters

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