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Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike where displaced people were staying in Rafah, Gaza Strip
Graphic images of Palestinians, including infants, killed in the strike and a resulting fire in a designated “safe zone” prompted global condemnation. Jehad Alshrafi/AP

U.S. ‘Can’t Connect Those Dots’ Between Israeli Airstrike and Civilian Deaths

The Biden administration says it is waiting on Israel’s investigation into a deadly strike on a tent camp and says it is not currently changing its policy.

The Biden administration, under pressure to address the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on a Rafah tent camp that killed at least 45 civilians, says it is deferring to Israel to investigate the matter and not yet changing its policy toward the conflict.

“No change to our current policy,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Tuesday. “As of yet, it’s not changing. We do support, as we always have, their ability to go after legitimate Hamas terrorists, and that, of course, includes using American-provided weapons.”

The White House echoed this sentiment, saying it was on Israel to carry out its accountability measures.

“All I can do is point you to what they have said, which is they were going after a Hamas compound which as a result of that strike, in some form or fashion, they say there were some secondary explosions that lead to that fire, that lead to these deaths,” John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, said. “I just physically can’t connect those dots for you since we weren’t involved in the operation. It’s important to let them investigate.”

Graphic images of Palestinian refugees, including infants, killed in the strike and a resulting fire in a designated “safe zone” just outside Rafah prompted global condemnation over the weekend. The strike came in defiance of an International Court of Justice order to halt military operations in Rafah where nearly half of Gaza’s population had been seeking refuge and are now fleeing to areas deemed unsafe.

The United States has voiced concern about the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, and President Joe Biden called a full-scale invasion of Rafah a “red line.” The administration put a delay on some munitions last month in response to Israel’s threats to escalate its campaign in the southernmost part of Gaza. However, the United States says Israel’s escalations, and mounting civilian death toll, have yet to cross that line.

“When it comes to our policy, we have made clear that we oppose any full-scale military operation and what the ramifications to our policy would be of them launching such an operation in Rafah,” Miller told reporters, pointing to the kinds of assaults Israel waged on Khan Younis and Gaza City. “We haven’t seen them do that yet.”

Miller was on the defensive Tuesday, declining to lay out what the administration’s “red line” in Rafah specifically amounts to and facing heat to justify the United States’ confidence in Israel’s system of accountability.

“We are just not in a position to declare that all the investigations that Israel are conducting are sham investigations while they are ongoing,” Miller said.

The United States has declined to conduct an independent review of Israel’s conduct.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the civilian deaths a “tragic mistake.” The Israeli military is investigating the cause of the fire.

The Israeli government has told the United States that Israel used the smallest bomb available to conduct the strike. Israel has said both that a preliminary investigation showed a piece of shrapnel from the bomb may have started the fire and that a Hamas ammunition depot caused the fire.

“Those images were heartbreaking,” Miller said of photos and video coming from the camp after the strike. “As soon as the United States saw reports of this incident, we reached out to the government of Israel to express our deep concern over what happened, ask for more information and urge them to undertake a full investigation.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week that “there’s no mathematical formula” for determining when Israel has crossed the administration’s so-called red line. “What we’re going to be looking at is whether there is a lot of death and destruction from this operation,” he said. “Or if it is more precise and proportional. And we will see that unfold.”

The State Department’s own report said “it is reasonable to assess” that Israel is using U.S.-provided weapons in ways that are “inconsistent with its international humanitarian law obligations,” but was inconclusive in its findings. The report also stated that the U.S. intelligence community, while not finding evidence of intentional targeting of civilians, “could do more to avoid civilian harm.”

John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.