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Palestinian officials say dozens killed in Israeli strikes on Rafah

Medics prepare the bodies of Gazans killed in an Israeli strike on a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah on May 26, 2024
— Rafah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Hamas and the Palestinian Authority said Israeli strikes on a centre for displaced people killed dozens near the southern city of Rafah on Sunday, while the Israeli army said it had targeted Hamas militants.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said in a statement that the strikes "claimed the lives of 35 martyrs and left dozens injured, most of them children and women".

The Hamas-run government media office in Gaza earlier said the attack hit a centre run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees near Rafah, branding it a "horrific massacre".

Israel's army said its aircraft "struck a Hamas compound in Rafah", killing Yassin Rabia and Khaled Nagar, both senior officials for the Palestinian militant group in the occupied West Bank.

It added 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. The incident is under review."

Israel's army said Sunday at least eight rockets were fired towards central areas of the country from Rafah, with strikes targeting the commercial hub of Tel Aviv for the first time in months.

Israeli soldiers during military operations in the Gaza Strip, seen in a picture released by the Israeli army on May 24, 2024

Fighting has recently centred on Rafah, where Israel's military launched a ground operation in early May despite widespread opposition over concerns for civilians sheltering there.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said its ambulance crews transported "a large number" of people killed and injured in the strikes.

The Palestinian Authority presidency in the West Bank called it a "heinous massacre", accusing Israeli forces of "deliberately targeting" the tents of displaced people.

Gaza's civil defence agency said Israeli strikes killed and wounded at least 50 people in the area, where it said 100,000 displaced people live.

Hamas said Palestinians must "rise up and march" against the attack.

- 'Strong Palestinian Authority' -

Netanyahu vowed to pursue Israel's offensive ahead of a war cabinet meeting amid intense diplomacy to forge a truce and a hostage-release deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2023

He has long rejected Hamas's demand for a permanent end to the conflict triggered by the Palestinian militant group's October 7 attack.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP the war cabinet would "discuss a hostage release deal" on Sunday.

Before the meeting, Netanyahu's office said Hamas's chief in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, "continues to demand the end of the war, the withdrawal of the IDF (army) from the Gaza Strip and leaving Hamas in place, so that it will be able to carry out the atrocities of October 7 again and again".

"Prime Minister Netanyahu strongly opposes this," a statement said.

EU members Ireland and Spain, and also Norway, have said they will recognise a Palestinian state from Tuesday, drawing furious Israeli condemnation.

"In order to make peace, we need a strong Palestinian Authority, not a weaker one," said the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who met in Brussels with Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Mustafa.

Palestinians react to an Israeli strike on a building in Nuseirat on May 25, 2024

Mustafa, whose government is based in the occupied West Bank, said the "first priority" was to support the people in Gaza, especially through a ceasefire, and then "rebuilding the institutions of the Palestinian Authority" in the territory after Hamas seized it from the PA in 2007.

The Israeli official had said Saturday that "there is an intention to renew these talks this week" after negotiations involving US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators stalled in early May.

- Pressure on Israel -

The October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

Displaced Palestinians arrive to take refuge at the Al-Mawasi camp in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,984 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

As the war grinds on, the families of hostages still held by militants have piled pressure on Netanyahu to secure a deal to free them.

Washington has also taken a tougher line with its close ally as outrage over the war and US support for Israel has become a major issue for President Joe Biden, seeking re-election in a battle against Donald Trump.

And Amnesty International has urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate as war crimes three recent Israeli strikes that killed 44 Palestinian civilians, including 32 children.

The rights group said Monday that the strikes –- one on the Al-Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza on April 16, and two on Rafah on April 19 and 20 –- were "further evidence of a broader pattern of war crimes" committed by Israel.

- Strikes on Tel Aviv -

Hamas's armed wing said Sunday that it targeted Tel Aviv "with a large rocket barrage in response to the Zionist massacres against civilians".

"Hamas launched these rockets from near two mosques in Rafah," Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said.

The salvo sent people scrambling for shelter but there were no reports of injuries.

The United Nations has warned of looming famine in besieged Gaza, where most hospitals are no longer functioning.

Last Monday, the prosecutor at the ICC said he was seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his defence minister as well as for three top Hamas figures.

And on Friday, the UN's International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt any operation in Rafah that could bring about "the physical destruction" of the Palestinians.