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Israel’s tent camp massacre in Rafah is a heinous war crime

Israel continues to act with total impunity in Gaza—with Western complicity

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

The camp on fire after the strike. Photo courtesy Reuters TV.

On the night of May 26, Israeli forces pounded a tent camp housing displaced people in a designated safe zone in north Rafah, killing at least 45 Palestinians, most of them women and children, and injuring hundreds others.

It was one of the most heinous assaults on Palestinian civilians in recent memory. Media reports show that Israel blitzed the tent camp with seven massive US bombs, weighting 2,000 pounds each. According to eyewitnesses, the intensive bombing, which targeted Rafah’s Tal al-Sultan area, was a deliberate attack on Palestinian refugees sheltering in tents. The bombarded refugee tents, marked as Block 2371, had been designated by Israel as a “safe area” for civilians.

Widely circulated footage shows a night of unspeakable horror: bodies burned to ashes, charred and blackened beyond recognition; beheaded children, decapitated and ripped apart by US bombs; parents clutching their dead and burned children, screaming in horror; rescuers pulling people’s charred remains from the burning tents; wounded victims transformed to the hospital with horrific and gruesome injuries.

The Rafah’s tents massacre is a horrific war crime carried out by Israel with unprecedented barbarity. Palestinians call it the “Tents Holocaust.”

Citing the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), the Palestinian news agency Wafa said the victims included women and children, many of whom were “burned alive” inside their tents. An eyewitness resident who arrived at the Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah related, “Tents were melting and the people’s bodies were also melting.”

A horrified doctor who witnessed the carnage said: “In all my years of humanitarian work, I have never witnessed something so barbaric, so atrocious, so inhumane. These images will haunt me forever. And will stain our conscience for eternity.”

The Rafah’s tents massacre comes days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to halt its military offensive there, and shortly after the International Criminal Court said it was applying for arrest warrants for Israeli leaders. In its barbaric retaliation against the ICJ ruling, Israel has bombarded Rafah with massive intensity and unprecedented brutality. Observers estimate that Israel has bombed the refugee town over 100 times since the ruling—a travesty of international justice and a slap in the face to the international court. Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, described Israel’s bombing of the Rafah camp as a “monstrous failure of humanity.”

The massacre has sparked a global outcry. International rights groups scrambled to find the words to describe the unfolding horrors in Rafah. The United Nations Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) described the images from Rafah as yet another testament that Gaza is “hell on earth.” Former UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness called the massacre “the crime of crimes.”

Doctors Without Borders said it was “horrified” by the assault, which “shows once again that nowhere is safe.” ActionAid humanitarian group says it was “outraged and heartbroken” by the “inhumane, barbaric” assault on the Rafah camp: “The images coming from our partners of burned bodies are a scar on the face of humanity and the global community, which so far has failed to protect the people of Gaza.” Calling for action against Israel, the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing wrote: “Attacking women and children while they cower in their shelters in Rafah is a monstrous atrocity. We need concerted global action to stop Israel’s actions now.”

Western leaders, meanwhile, have offered their usual bromides. Josef Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said he was “horrified by news coming out of Rafah on Israeli strikes killing dozens of displaced persons, including small children,” while French President Emanuel Macron said he was “outraged by the Israeli strikes that have killed many displaced persons in Rafah.” Yet it’s not immediately clear whether that “outrage” would lead to European sanctions on Israel.

Rafah is home to 1.4 million displaced Palestinians, most of whom are women and children sheltering in makeshift tents. The attack on the tent camp in Tal al-Sultan came shortly after Israeli forces bombed shelters housing displaced Palestinians in Gaza, including Jabalia, Nuseirat, and Gaza City, killing at least 160 Palestinians. So far Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza has reaped over 35,000 victims, including over 15,000 children. It has displaced nearly two million Palestinians, mostly to Rafah, which has been mercilessly bombarded by Israel.

In a flagrant violation of international norms and humanitarian laws, Israel continues to act with total impunity in Gaza, enjoying Western complicity, and emboldened by US unconditional military and diplomatic support. Amid global outrage and condemnation, Israeli leaders continue to call for the total annihilation of Gaza, with thousands of Israelis are now taking to Telegram groups to celebrate IDF atrocities with images of burned Palestinian children.

For over eight months, Palestinians in Gaza have been sharing live videos of their daily executions, pleading with the world to stop the carnage. But the Western political class has remained silent, piping up only to offer platitudes about human rights and international law, while refusing to rein in Israel’s unhinged barbarity, let alone impose sanctions on a genocidal state that is brazenly retaliating against the ICJ ruling by massacring even more Palestinians.

Seraj Assi is a Palestinian writer living in Washington, DC.

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