Palestinians in the aftermath of massacre on Rafah tent encampent on May 27, 2024

Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah on May 27, 2024 that killed at least 48 people and wounded hundreds of others.

(Photo by Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel's Backhanded Apology for Rafah Massacre Was No Apology at All

It was statement of regret aimed not at the Palestinian victims of the attack, but at the U.S. government which continues to bless the Netanyahu government with its support and shield it from international accountability as the bombing continues.

On Monday, May 27, Israel appeared to “apologize” for the deaths of 45 Palestinians resulting from its bombing raid on a “humanitarian zone” in Rafah. By any measure, it was a backhanded apology that conveyed more insult than atonement. As Israeli apologies, even those that are insincere, are rare, it’s worth examining the background that led up to this one.

This latest bombing of Rafah occurred just two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to stop its assault on Rafah citing the dangers it posed to civilian life and the delivery of humanitarian aid. Just a few days earlier, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court declared his intent to request arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yossi Gallant on charges of war crimes committed during the assault on Gaza.

Compounding the embarrassment all this created for Israel were the joint decisions by three European Union nations, Spain, Ireland, and Norway, to recognize the State of Palestine coupled with statements of support for the ICC warrant request coming from France and Germany. Many of these same European countries also issued swift and firm denunciations of the Rafah attack.

As was to be expected, the initial Israeli response to these developments was immediate and excessive. The ICJ was termed “a moral outrage.” Israeli commentators denounced the court in racist terms, pointing to the percentage of judges who came from Muslim-majority or “third world” countries. The EU countries that recognized Palestine were compared to Nazis and their action was termed antisemitic. By far, the greatest torrent of abusive language came in response to the ICC request for warrants and it came from both the government and the opposition. Justice Minister Levin referred to the ICC prosecutor’s request as “one of the biggest moral disgraces in human history.” For his part Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a classic display of narcissism, said that the charges against him were “directed against all of Israel.” As such, he concluded that it was “an example of the new antisemitism.” Stretching this deflection further he asked: “With what chutzpah do you dare compare Hamas…and the soldiers of the IDF who are fighting a just war that is unparalleled with a morality that is unmatched?”

Even Netanyahu’s foes chimed in, with Benny Gantz terming the ICC prosecutor’s request “a crime of historic proportions,” and Yair Lapid calling it “unforgivable” and “a terrible political failure.”

This use of excessive language, a form of bullying, is the way Israel traditionally responds to criticism. It’s an attempt to verbally pummel their critics into submission while shoring up their supporters. This was the spoken response. But then came the decision to bomb Rafah.

This attack may have been an Israeli effort to demonstrate that they would not be deterred by world opinion or criticism. For whatever reason, the Israeli announcement of the bombing was followed by an official statement describing the attack as using “precise munitions based on precise intelligence.”

Parsing the language used here suggests that the Israelis were aware of the possible repercussions of their attack and were testing the waters of tolerance from their critics, while at least appearing to thread the needle of compliance with international law and bowing to the concerns of their U.S. patron that civilian casualties must be avoided.

As we now know, the initial bombing was not precise with 22 deaths reported. The blast then ignited fires that ravaged the area adjacent to the blast site and the death toll grew to 45 at last count.

Confronted by the growing chorus of international outrage, the Israelis followed their normal practice of “deny, lie, and obfuscate.” First, they claimed that the death toll was exaggerated and the attack had been precise. Then they said that the site had not been in a “protected zone”—a false claim, as only a few days before the raid, they had announced an expansion of the protected zone to include the area that was bombed. Then they denounced their Hamas targets for “hiding out” among civilians. Then after feigning innocence by asking how they were to know that a fire would be started in a crowded tent area resulting in the loss of innocent lives, they added an element of confusion, suggesting that the bombing had been precise, but the fire might have started if the bomb blast ignited a nearby Hamas arms cache. No evidence was presented or even needed to make that claim, because with that bit of obfuscation the Israelis felt that they had cast doubt on their responsibility and shifted the blame back to Hamas.

When none of these efforts succeeded in dampening international rage, the Israelis decided to do what they rarely do: “apologize.” They could see world opinion turning against them, with warrants on the way against the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Despite the Biden administration’s verbal gymnastics in hesitating to condemn their crossing of the President’s ever-moving red line, they know just how precarious their position is in the United States. And with Netanyahu hoping to speak before Congress and facing a Democratic boycott of his remarks, some action had to be taken.

So the decision was made to apologize. And what a backhanded apology it was. Speaking before the Knesset, Netanyahu announced: “Despite our efforts not to hit them, there was a tragic mishap. We are investigating the incident.” Then adding insult to injury, he continued, “For us it’s a tragedy; for Hamas it’s a strategy.” This last sentence echoed the deeply hurtful and racist comment of former Prime Minister Golda Meir who once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We can never forgive them for making us kill their children.”

As a further demonstration of the insincerity of their apology, a few days later Israel bombed another congested refugee encampment in Rafah, killing 21 Palestinians.

As if to greenlight more such attacks, despite the growing worldwide and domestic condemnation of these mass killings, the Biden administration announced that the U.S. will not take any action against Israel because they are satisfied that Israel is taking precautions to avoid civilian deaths and is investigating the consequences of their actions in Rafah. Netanyahu plays to an audience of one so that was enough for the bombings to continue.

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