(Bloomberg) -- At least 40 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli airstrike at a camp for displaced people in the southern city of Rafah late Sunday, the Hamas-run ministry of health said. 

The strike came two days after the International Court of Justice issued a ruling that many interpreted as ordering Israel to halt its operations so as to save civilians.

The Israeli military said it carried out the strike based on “precise intelligence”  against “legitimate targets under international law” and that it killed two “senior” Hamas officials responsible for operations in the West Bank.

Read more: World Bank Tallies Up War’s Ruinous Cost for Palestinian Economy

The area, in Rafah’s northwest, was overcrowded with tents from people fleeing the assault on the city, which the Biden administration has warned against because of the risk to civilians lives. Footage on social media showed fire spreading across tents as people pulled out the dead and injured.

“Our teams are doing their best to save lives,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement, adding that it was treating people from the strike at a field hospital. “It’s imperative to protect civilians.”  

The area wasn’t among those ordered to be evacuated by the Israeli military as it prepared for the assault on Rafah, and it attracted many people fleeing areas deemed more dangerous.

The Israeli military said it was “aware” of reports that civilians were harmed due to the strike and the fire it ignited, and that it’s reviewing the incident.

Israel says the operations in Rafah will continue until the several thousand Hamas fighters there are crushed or surrender. Officials say they interpret Friday’s ruling in The Hague as permitting the incursion to continue as long as it’s done with care, adding that the military is carrying out targeted strikes in Rafah, far short of a full invasion.  

Negotiations over a Gaza cease-fire had been set to resume this week following a meeting in Paris among Israel’s intelligence chief, the head of the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Qatari foreign minister. 

The talks, aimed at exchanging Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners and reaching an extended pause in combat, have fallen apart over Hamas’ insistence that they lead to an end to the war. Israel says the war can only end with the defeat of Hamas. The mediators are seeking language that both sides can accept.

Read more: Israel Ordered by UN Court to Halt Rafah Military Operations 

In a ruling on Friday, the ICJ said “Israel must immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

The wording of the sentence has led to diverging interpretations. Many regard it as as an order to stop the offensive, and that’s how it was widely reported on Friday. But Israeli officials say the order is conditional — that their military must stop any action that could destroy civilians. 

The campaign in Rafah will not “lead to the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population,” Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a joint statement with the Foreign Ministry’s legal advisers. Speaking later on Israel’s Channel 12, Hanegbi said, “What they are asking us is to not commit genocide in Rafah. We did not commit genocide and we will not commit genocide.”

Tel Aviv Strikes

Sirens sounded around Tel Aviv on Sunday, driving residents into bomb shelters after eight missiles were shot from Rafah, according to the military. Hamas claimed responsibility. Israel’s air defense system intercepted them all.

It was the first such volley of missiles to reach Tel Aviv in months, a sign, military spokesmen said, that Hamas has been smuggling new weapons into Rafah from Egypt and a key reason why Israel contends it needs to send its forces there.

Whatever the majority meant in its 13-2 ruling, member countries can take their case to the United Nations Security Council, which could order Israel to stop its military incursion into Rafah at risk of sanctions. 

To avoid that, Israel would rely on the US veto in the Security Council. Given recent tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Joe Biden, there’s concern in Jerusalem that Washington may not rush to its aid, although it seems likely to issue a veto in the end.

The strain with the US, which has built over the course of the seven-month war in Gaza, has intensified over Rafah. Some 1.4 million Palestinians were sheltering in Rafah when Israel said they should move to safer areas within the coastal enclave in preparation for its invasion, which is aimed at taking out what it says are the four remaining Hamas battalions there. 

The US said there’s no safe place for those internal refugees to go and that the flow of badly-needed humanitarian goods into Gaza would again be halted if the Rafah operation went ahead. 

Nearly a million Palestinians have fled Rafah to parts of Gaza that are at least partly destroyed, many without proper sanitation or water supplies.

Read more: Gazans Flee Danger of Rafah for Uncertainty of Crowded Camps 

David Satterfield, a senior adviser for Gaza to the US State Department, said that as a result of the Rafah operation, a humanitarian crisis that was slowing down is again at risk of spinning out of control.

Among the problems has been the stoppage of aid from Egypt since the Rafah operation began. On Sunday, some of that aid was starting to enter Gaza through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing, according to an Israeli military spokesman.

The war began on Oct. 7 after thousands of Hamas operatives crossed into southern Israel, killing 1,200 and abducting 250 more. Israel’s counterattack has killed some 35,000 Gazans, according to Hamas officials who don’t distinguish between civilians and fighters. The US and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization. 

--With assistance from Fares Akram.

(Updates with death toll.)

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