Tuesday briefing: ‘There are massacres everywhere’: what has happened since Rafah was struck?

<span>Fire rages following an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced Palestinians in Rafah.</span><span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Fire rages following an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced Palestinians in Rafah.Photograph: Reuters

Good morning. Since Israel’s airstrike in Rafah on Sunday night, the evidence of an egregious civilian toll has mounted. At least 45 people are now believed to have been killed – and while Israel claimed that the attack was aimed at a “Hamas compound”, witnesses, aid organisations and video evidence all suggest that a refugee encampment bore the brunt of the attack.

On Monday morning, the IDF said that the attack was against “legitimate targets”. Now, in the face of a chorus of international condemnation and with an emergency session of the UN Security Council scheduled for later today, Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted that “something unfortunately went tragically wrong” despite what he claimed were “our best efforts not to hurt them”. But he also insisted that there would be no change in policy. “I will keep fighting until the flag of victory is raised,” he said. “I don’t intend to end the war before every goal has been achieved.”

The question now is whether the expressions of dismay from even Israel’s closest allies, including the US, will translate into meaningful pressure on Netanyahu to change course. Today’s newsletter explains what happened in Rafah, who the victims were, and what we know about Israel’s intentions from here. First, the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. General election 2024 | Rishi Sunak struggled to keep control of his fractured party on a chaotic fifth day of the Tory election campaign, as an MP defected to Reform and a minister criticised the prime minister’s pledge to bring back national service. Lucy Allan, who is standing down in Telford, had the whip suspended after saying she would be backing her local Reform candidate.

  2. Water | Ofwat is poised to refuse most water companies’ requests to ratchet up consumer bills, with some getting as little as half of what they have asked for, the Guardian has learned. The decision from the water watchdog for England and Wales, Ofwat, has been formally delayed until 11 July because of the general election.

  3. Papua New Guinea | Satellite images have revealed the scale of Friday’s devastating landslide in the remote province of Enga, which is estimated to have buried around 2,000 people. Images showing mountains of debris in the village of Yambali emerged as thousands more residents were told to evacuate amid fears of a second landslide.

  4. Health | Martha’s rule, the patient safety initiative enabling those whose health is failing to obtain an urgent second opinion about their care, is to be rolled out in 143 hospitals in England, the NHS has said. The parents of Martha Mills, who died of sepsis at King’s College hospital in 2021, said that the rollout would “save lives and encourage better, more open, communication on hospital wards”.

  5. Environment | The first successful seedling nurtured from seeds collected from the 200-year-old Sycamore Gap tree, which was illegally felled, will be planted in Windsor Great Park after being given to King Charles by the National Trust.

In depth: ‘They told us that this area is safe’

On Sunday night, an Israeli airstrike hit the Tal al-Sultan neighbourhood, about 2km (1.2 miles) north-west of Rafah city centre. Gaza’s health ministry put the death toll from the strikes at 45, with 249 wounded.

Here’s what else you need to know.


What happened?

Footage from the scene showed fires raging through tightly packed tents pitched close to Unrwa warehouses where aid supplies have been stored. There were horrifying videos of people frantically searching the rubble for survivors, burned bodies and a decapitated child.

Agence France-Presse quoted Mohammad al-Mughayyir, a senior official at the Gaza civil defence agency, as saying: “We saw charred bodies and dismembered limbs … We also saw cases of amputations, wounded children, women and the elderly.” He said that rescue efforts had been hampered by the destruction of roads used by ambulances and a shortage of water to put fires out.

Eyewitnesses and victims told a similar story. “We pulled out people who were in an unbearable state,” Mohammed Abuassa, who rushed to the scene to help, told the Associated Press. “We pulled out children who were in pieces. We pulled out young and elderly people. The fire in the camp was unreal.”

The Red Cross said that its field hospital in Rafah had received an influx of casualties, and that others in the area were also receiving large numbers of patients. Gaza’s health ministry said that ambulance crews had been overwhelmed by the emergency.

The attack followed the first long-range rocket attack on Israel from Gaza since January, with eight rockets fired towards Tel Aviv from Rafah. Most of the rockets were intercepted or fell harmlessly in fields, and no significant injuries were reported.

The Israeli military initially claimed that the strike by its air force had hit a Hamas compound with “precise ammunition and on the basis of precise intelligence”. It said that two senior Hamas officials, Yassin Rabia and Khaled Nagar, had been killed in the attack. But it also said that it was “aware of reports indicating that as a result of the strike and fire that was ignited, several civilians in the area were harmed” and said that “the incident is under review”. On Monday afternoon, Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged in a speech at the Knesset that civilians had died.


Was the attack on a “safe zone”?

Tal al-Sultan was not included in a list of areas that the IDF ordered to be evacuated earlier this month. According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society and others, the area had been designated as a humanitarian zone where civilians can seek shelter.

Israeli officials claimed that the attack was outside of the humanitarian zone. This IDF map published yesterday shows the strike as being in an area not covered by any guarantee of safety. But last week, an IDF spokesman appeared to say in a video that the area in question was safe.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic specialising in digital disinformation in the Middle East, produced this useful thread highlighting ambiguities and imprecision in IDF maps and statements about the area, which provide ample scope for confusion. (He also noted: “Quibbling about the exact zones also masks the point that regardless of where the attack took place, it involved mass killing of civilians that is impossible to justify.”)

Civilians sheltering in the area are likely to have drawn comfort from the fact that it was so close to Unrwa warehouses, which are off-limits for attack under international law. The UN agency decried what it said were “further attacks on families seeking shelter”.

Dr James Smith, a British doctor with Medecins Sans Frontières, told the New York Times that civilians in the area were in “very, very tightly packed tents” and said that “a fire like this could spread over a huge distance with catastrophic consequences in a very, very short space of time”. The attack was “one of the most horrific things that I have seen or heard of in all of the weeks that I’ve been working in Gaza,” he added.


How many civilians remain in Rafah?

Over the course of the war, more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population have sought refuge in Rafah. But about 1 million have been forced to flee again, as Israel has moved into the outskirts of the city this month. 3-400,000 civilians are thought to remain in the area.

The 800,000 said by the UN to have fled Rafah in recent weeks are mostly now sheltering to the north of the city. But the “safe zones” they have moved to frequently lack clean water, medical care, and other basic amenities. Those who are still in Rafah are living in “disastrous” circumstances, the international court of justice (ICJ) – the UN’s highest court – said on Friday.

In its ruling, which ordered Israel to halt its assault in Rafah, the ICJ also said that it is not persuaded “that the evacuation efforts and related measures that Israel affirms to have undertaken to enhance the security of civilians in the Gaza Strip, and in particular those recently displaced from the Rafah governorate, are sufficient to alleviate the immense risk to which the Palestinian population is exposed”.

The Rafah border crossing, and another nearby at Kerem Shalom, have also been rendered largely inaccessible: while Israel says that aid has been allowed to enter, UN agencies say that it is too dangerous to pick it up on the other side. An agreement was reached to allow 200 trucks through at Kerem Shalom on Sunday, but it is not yet clear whether relief agencies will be able to retrieve supplies.


What happens next?

The ICJ’s ruling is legally binding but unenforceable, and Israeli ministers have said that they will defy it. That is despite the fact, as explained by Peter Beaumont here, that the court’s statement appears to imply that it views a full assault on Rafah as having the potential to reach the threshold of genocide.

Haaretz yesterday reported Western diplomats saying that the timing of the incident could lead to a stricter interpretation of the ruling by other countries: “Two days after the ICJ said to Israel, ‘you can operate in Rafah but don’t cause mass civilian casualties,’ an airstrike causes mass civilian casualties,” one said. “This will turn up the pressure for a complete halt of the offensive.”

Over the last two weeks, the IDF has amassed troops on the ground in and around Rafah while staying clear of the most densely populated areas. It is not yet clear whether the strike in Tal al-Sultan will be followed by a new ground offensive. But it has drawn condemnation from around the world, and Qatar, which is mediating talks intended to revive stalled efforts for a truce, has warned that the attack may “hinder reaching an agreement for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the exchange of prisoners and detainees”.

A key question now is whether the US, which has previously joined with the UK in saying that it will not support Israel’s assault on Rafah unless a credible plan to protect civilians is put in place, will put pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu to hold back. But, as Patrick Wintour wrote on Friday, “the definition of what constitutes a major offensive has become more flexible” since that red line was first put in place.

Last week, US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, claimed that Israel’s operation so far had been “more targeted and limited”. Since the attack the US has said it is “gathering more information” but not whether the latest round of civilian deaths in a designated safe zone breaches that condition. But to many observers, a major assault on Rafah is already under way – and civilians are paying the price.

What else we’ve been reading

  • “After the war I wiped it out”: for the Guardian’s latest How we survive feature, Holocaust survivor Maxwell Smart (pictured above) recalls the terror he endured – and why he kept it a secret for 70 years. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Maya Goodfellow asks whether Labour has anything more to offer asylum seekers coming to the UK than macho language and “gimmicks”. “The way to stop perilous crossings and to save lives,” she writes, “is to provide a safe option”. Charlie Lindlar, newsletters team

  • ICYMI: deputy fashion and lifestyle editor Chloe Mac Donnell took a deep dive into the closure of luxury label The Vampire’s Wife, and the problems plaguing the British fashion industry after the administration of stalwart site Matches. Hannah

  • How do you pick the best 10 films from 1999, possibly the greatest single year in cinema? Simran Hans gives it her best shot, focusing on the 10 that best encapsulate that pre-millenium, pre-social media era – so bad luck, The Phantom Menace. Charlie

  • You won’t be cheesed off with Rachel Roddy’s recipe for barbecue-baked mozzarella (or halloumi, or feta …) with oregano and honey. Napkins for the oozy, gooey bits not included. Hannah


Tennis | Rafael Nadal lost in the first round of the French Open to Alexander Zverev 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in what might turn out to be the 14-time Roland Garros champion’s last match at his favourite tournament. He said after his match: “If it’s the last time that I played here, I am at peace with myself.”

Football | Chelsea are ready to give Enzo Maresca a five-year deal after being granted permission to speak to the Leicester manager. Maresca, who is expected to agree to take the job, has emerged as the favoured candidate to succeed Mauricio Pochettino. Meanwhile, Roberto De Zerbi has been sounded out as a potential replacement for Erik ten Hag as Manchester United manager.

Formula One | The Monaco Grand Prix is under pressure to find ways to adapt after a strikingly uneventful procession on the streets of Monte Carlo was won by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc on Sunday. With the top 10 finishing in the order they started the race and Monaco’s F1 contract ending next year, there were calls for adaptations that could make overtaking more viable on the historic circuit’s narrow course.

The front pages

The Guardian leads with the reaction to events in Rafah, with “Global outrage after dozens killed in Israeli airstrike on Rafah camp”. Many of the other papers are focused on the general election. On the Mirror’s front page, Keir Starmer tells readers: “You can end Tory chaos”. The Express has “I’m on your side! PM pledges bumper pension rise”, next to a photo of Rishi Sunak with a football at his feet. A similar picture is on the Times front page but with the headline “City figures back Labour with call for new outlook”, as the paper reports that the party has won backing from a coalition of business leaders.

In the Telegraph the headline is “PM: State pensions will never be taxed” saying the conservatives have promised a “quadruple lock”. The Mail has schooling in its sights with “Four in 10 to quit private school under Keir’s tax”, covering Labour’s plan to charge VAT on independent school fees. In the i, more headaches for Labour with “Labour mayors warn Starmer: we will fight for better deal” on council funding.

In the Financial Times, it’s “ECB ready for rate cuts next week, chief economist says”, as the paper flags what it describes as a clear signal from the European Central Bank.

Today in Focus

How Ozempic is re-shaping the US

The company behind the weight-loss drug has made millions, but without health insurance it is unaffordable for many. Hannah Moore speaks to George Chidi

Cartoon of the day | Stephen Lillie

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Under umbrellas and on soggy yoga mats in Seoul on Sunday, a crowd of people are locked in a very un-frenzied type of competition. The international “space-out competition” was first started in 2014, the winner being the participant with the most stable heart rate. The event is as much an artistic intervention as it is an act of sport, which highlights the fact that South Korea is known for having some of the longest working hours in the developed world. Young people in particular are suffering. A 2022 government survey targeting 19-34-year-olds found that one in three young people had experienced burnout in the past year. “Korean society is very competitive, so sometimes doing nothing is essential,” said Kim Ki-kyung, a South Korean office worker who took part. “I think we’ve forgotten how to do that.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.