Who By Fire? The Burning of Rafah’s Tent People

Still from a video shot by Kharmes al-Refi of the Israeli airstrike on the tent camp in the designated safe zone of Tel-al Sultan, western Rafah.

“Oh hell, what do mine eyes
with grief behold?”

– John Milton, Paradise Lost

People were saying their evening prayers when the IDF attacked the refuge camp at Tel al-Sultan in southern Gaza, where thousands had fled from the Israeli invasion of Rafah. They were told by the Israelis this was a safe zone, a secure place to shelter their children and grandparents. 

“For your safety, the Israeli Defense Force is asking you to leave these areas immediately and to go to known shelters in Deir el Balah or the humanitarian area in Tel al-Sultan through Beach Road,” read one of the leaflets dropped in Rafah a few days before. “Don’t blame us after we warned you.”

The safe zone was a tent city amid the dunes–one of dozens scattered along more than 16 kilometers up the Gaza coast. The tents were made of plastic, which whipped and frayed in the coastal winds–a thin layer of protection against the sun and sand that soon turned into a death trap. 

The lure of safety was the only thing Tel al-Sultan had going for it. The conditions in the camp were wretched. Thousands of starving people crammed together with little fresh water, meager rations, few toilets and nothing much to do except scavenge the beach for scraps of food, dig pit toilets in the sand and pray that someone will intervene to put an end to the war.

When the Israeli bombs strafed the safe zone, the plastic tents caught fire, sending flames leaping two meters high, before the melting, blazing structures collapsed on the people inside, many of them children who’d just been tucked in for the evening. 

There was no water to put the flames out. No firetrucks to stop the inferno. No ambulances to rush the wounded to the hospital. No functioning hospital to treat the burned and the maimed.

At least 45 people, most of them women and children, were killed and nearly 300 injured with shrapnel wounds, burns, fractures and traumatic brain injuries.

“No single health facility in Gaza can handle a mass casualty event such as this one,” said Samuel Johann of Médecins Sans Frontières. “The health system has been decimated and cannot cope any longer.”

The attack came two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its military operations in Gaza, open the border crossings so food, water and medicine could reach the starving Palestinians and allow human rights investigators into the Strip. This malicious act of defiance against the edicts of international law occurred on the same day Israeli tanks entered the central region of Rafah in what the Israelis had basely billed as a “limited military operation.” In the first 48 hours after the ICJ ruling, Israel bombed Rafah at least 60 times.

Tel al-Sultan in western Rafah is an official displacement camp, so designated by the Israelis. The Israelis called it: “Block 2371.” It is located next to UN aid warehouses. Desperate Palestinian families were told they would be safe here. Then the Israelis set it on fire, claiming they were targeting two Hamas operatives. The IDF said it didn’t think civilians would be harmed when it bombed the refuge camp it had told civilians to flee to. 

A map by Forensic Architecture of Israeli airstrikes inside safe zones.

Disingenuousness is the IDF’s calling card these days. Yet after one massacre after another, perhaps only the Biden administration believes it. Most Israelis don’t. Some prominent Israelis cheered the burning of civilians. The Israeli TV journalist and newspaper columnist Yinon Magal posted a video of the burning refugee camp with the caption: “The central bonfire this year in Rafah”–a reference to the traditional bonfires for the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’Ome.

“I lost five family members,” said Majed al-Attar of the “bonfire.” “We were sitting in tents when suddenly the camp was bombed. I lost five family members, all burned completely.  Among the victims were pregnant women. They kept telling us this area was safe until we were bombed.”

Israel said its targets were two Hamas operatives: Khaled al-Najjar and  Yassin Abu Rabia. Al-Najjar was said to be a “senior staff officer.” Abu Rabia, the Israelis claimed, was Hamas’ West Bank staff commander. Were they really part of Hamas’ leadership? Who’s to say? It is known that both men had been released from Israeli prisoners in 2011 by Netanyahu in the prisoner swap that freed captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Both men were also originally from the West Bank and had been expelled by the Israelis to Gaza. Had long had Abu Rabia and al-Najjar been on the IDF’s so-called “target bank,” a hit list of Palestinians the Israeli army and intelligence can kill at will for acts committed years in the past.

“Bombing a tent camp full of displaced people is a clear-cut, full-on war crime,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, former head of disaster relief for US AID. “Even if Hamas troops were present, that does not absolve the IDF of the obligation to protect civilians. It does not turn a tent camp into a free fire zone.”

Who picked the targets? Who tracked them to the tent camp? Who okayed the airstrike? Was it the Israelis  Lavender AI software program, which permits 20 “uninvolved civilians” to be killed for each targeted junior member of Hamas and 100 civilians to be killed “in exchange” for a senior member? 

“We were sitting safely and suddenly we find bodies thrown on the ground, blood splattered on the ground — heads cut off, hands cut off,” said Malak Filfel. “This is not a life. There is no safety. We’re not getting out. No matter where we go, we will die here.”

Video of the attack showed babies thrashing in pain, women with their skin blackened to a crisp, men with their faces melted to the skull, a decapitated child, parents clutching the bodies of their burned children in their arms, a boy screaming in anguish as he watches his father being burned alive inside a flaming tent.  “We pulled out children who were in pieces,” Mohammed Abuassa told the Associated Press. “We pulled out young and elderly people. The fire in the camp was unreal.”

Israel defended itself by saying the murderous attack stayed within the boundaries Biden and Blinken had outlined for such massacres. They used small bombs (smaller at 250 pounds than the 2000-pound blockbusters Biden briefly decried to CNN, anyway) that were precision-guided to their target (a refugee camp in the humanitarian zone they had designated). 

And so they did. The GBU-39 bombs that burned the Rafah tent camp were made in the US by Boeing (a company the Portland State students targeted in their occupation of the campus). Biden has sold Israel more than 1,000 of these incendiary weapons since October. “They send us chickpeas,” one Palestinian said. “And to the Israelis they send weapons.”

Still, days after CNN and the New York Times confirmed that Israel bombed the tent camp with US-made weapons, the Biden administration refused to cop to it, claiming ignorance. The State Department’s hapless PR flack Vedant Patel was sent out to try, ineptly, to deflect attention from Israel’s use of a bomb made and designed in the US which the Biden administration has repeatedly urged the Israelis to use more frequently in its war on Gaza–a bomb designed to spray shrapnel fragments as far as 2,000 feet.

Reporter: Do you have any comment on CNN and NYT’s reports that the Israelis used US weapons in the Rafah attack?

Patel: I’m gonna let the IDF speak to their investigation…

Reporter: I’m asking you, was this a US weapon?

Patel: It’s not for us to speak to. We can’t speak to individual weapons load-outs to individual Israeli aircraft. So I will let the IDF speak to their investigation’s findings and indicate anything they have to share about what weapons were used.

Remains of the Tail Actuation System of the GBU-39 guided missile at the Tel-Sultan tent camp. A weapon made and designed by Boeing.

The US largely stands mute as Israel turns evacuation zones into zones of extermination. Instead, Biden continues to repeat discredited stories of Israeli children burned in ovens or decapitated by Hamas, while saying nothing about actual Palestinian children decapitated and burned alive by US-made weapons.

After the images of burning tents and charred bodies spread across the world igniting a new round of global indignation and disgust, Netanyahu made a rare, if half-hearted, attempt at damage control, calling the bombing a “tragic mistake.” Once is a mistake, twice a “tragic mistake.” 15,000 times is a genocide.

In eight months of war, Israel has killed thirty times more children in Gaza than Russia has killed Ukrainian children in two years and years months of war. Gaza’s population is just 1/18th the size of Ukraine’s. But instead of sanctioning Israel, Biden and Blinken have threatened to sanction the one agency that’s tried to hold it accountable: the ICJ. Every atrocity Israel gets away with encourages it to do something even more grotesque.

Two days after the firebombing of Tel al-Sultan, Israel attacked another tent encampment for displaced Palestinians, this time in Al-Mawasi, a Bedouin village in a coastal area on the outskirts of Rafah. Like Tel al-Sultan, Al-Mawasi was a designated humanitarian zone, packed with families, when it was struck by at least four Israeli tank shells, probably the highly destructive 120 mm shells supplied by the Biden administration. At least 21 Palestinians were killed in the shelling inside what Israel has designated a civilian evacuation zone and another 65 were injured, 10 of them critically. Twelve of the dead were women.

Biden’s National Security Advisor John Kirby said there was nothing in the massacres on Sunday or Tuesday that would prompt the United States to rethink its military aid to Israel.

Reporter: How does this not violate the red line the President laid out?

John Kirby: We don’t want to see a major ground operation in Rafah and we haven’t seen one.

Reporter: How many more charred corpses does he have to see before the President considers a change in policy?

John Kirby: I take offense at the question…

Typically, Kirby took offense at the question, but not the children carbonized by US-made bombs.

Biden has voluntarily tied himself to a regime that burns children to death as they sleep in tents they were forced to move into by the people who incinerated them. His red lines are drawn in the blood of Palestinian babies.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3