Rafah offensive not a major operation, says US

The United States does not believe Israel has launched a large-scale invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, White House spokesman John Kirby said.

He spoke hours after Israeli forces reached the city center and reportedly seized a strategically important hill overlooking the nearby border with Egypt.

Kirby was also responding to questions about an Israeli airstrike and resulting fire on Sunday that killed at least 45 Palestinians at a tent camp for displaced people.

Israel says it believes the fire could have been caused by the explosion of weapons stored by Hamas.

Kirby told reporters that images of Sunday’s attack, which mainly killed women, children and the elderly, were “heartbreaking” and “horrific.”

“No innocent life should be lost here as a result of this conflict,” he added.

But he acknowledged that Israel was investigating the incident and said he had “no policy change to speak of” following the recent events in Rafah.

“We still don’t believe a major ground operation is warranted… and we haven’t seen it at this point,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Sunday’s attack as a “tragic mishap” while vowing to continue the operation in Rafah.

But the Israeli military said it was investigating the possibility that the fire was caused by the explosion of weapons stored by Hamas in the vicinity of the attack, which had targeted and killed two senior Hamas officials.

US President Joe Biden has made clear that a large-scale Israeli offensive in Rafah would cross a red line, saying earlier this month that some weapons supplies to Israel would be halted in the event of a major ground operation in the city. .

The Israeli military said on Tuesday that its troops were continuing their activities against “terrorist targets” in Rafah, three weeks after launching the ground operation there.

Witnesses said Israeli tanks were parked at the Al Awda roundabout, considered a key landmark.

Western areas of the city came under heavy shelling overnight from Monday to Tuesday, residents said.

The Israeli military has denied reports on Tuesday that shells from its tanks hit another tent camp in al-Mawasi, on the west coast of Rafah, which local officials said had killed at least 21 people.

Videos of the incident posted on social media and analyzed by BBC Verify showed several people with serious injuries.

There were no clear signs of an explosion zone or crater, making it impossible to determine the cause of the incident. The location, verified by reference to surrounding buildings, is between Rafah and al-Mawasi, and lies south of the humanitarian zone designated by the Israeli army.

Israel has insisted that victory in its seven-month war with Hamas in Gaza is impossible without taking Rafah and rejected warnings that it could have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

The UN says around a million people have fled the fighting in Rafah, but several hundred thousand more could still take refuge there.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began what it called “targeted” ground operations against Hamas fighters and infrastructure in eastern Rafah on May 6.

Since then, tanks and troops have been gradually advancing toward built-up areas in the east and center, while also advancing north along the 13-kilometer (8-mile) border with Egypt.

Israel launched a military campaign in Gaza to destroy Hamas in response to the group’s cross-border attack on southern Israel on October 7, during which some 1,200 people were killed and another 252 were taken hostage.

At least 36,090 people have died in Gaza since then, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.