Israeli airstrike that killed dozens in Rafah carried out using type of bomb supplied by US

On the night of 26 May, an Israeli airstrike hit the neighbourhood of Tel al Sultan in Rafah.

At least 45 people were killed as structures in an area housing displaced Palestinians were set alight, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza.

Location of the strike

Credit: Sky News and Planet Labs PBC
Pic: Sky News and Planet Labs PBC

The affected area is less than 200 metres from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s compound in the north of Rafah.

Geolocated footage and satellite imagery shows the strike destroyed buildings immediately adjacent to a sign identifying Kuwaiti Al-Salam Camp 1.

While it is unclear whether the buildings are part of the camp, Kuwaiti Al-Salam Camp 1 is known to house Palestinians displaced by the ongoing conflict.

Over much of the conflict, the surrounding area has been occupied by tents and sheds housing displaced people. In recent weeks, the number of these structures has decreased as Palestinians fled in advance of Israel‘s ground offensive in Rafah.

Verifying footage

To build a picture of what happened immediately after the strike, Sky News verified numerous videos and photographs captured by those present.

Fire rages following an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced Palestinians, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in this still picture taken from a video, May 26, 2024. REUTERS/Reuters TV TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Fire rages following an Israeli strike on an area designated for displaced Palestinians in Tel al Sultan. Pic: Reuters

A sign and other distinctive features visible in footage recorded in the immediate aftermath allowed it to be matched to a daytime recording from the same scene.

Source: Sky News / social  media
Footage of a man carrying a beheaded child (L) matched with a video of the same scene (R)

Landmarks visible in the daylight made it possible to determine the exact location of the strike, and verify pieces of footage recorded at night in the same place.

The footage ultimately verified by Sky News shows numerous bodies being pulled from the wreckage of destroyed buildings. In one video, a man can be seen carrying the body of a decapitated child.

Satellite imagery captured by Planet Labs PBC on 27 May shows four buildings were destroyed in this strike.

The Israeli account

In a statement given on 28 May, a senior Israeli military official claimed the deaths of civilians were the result of an attempt to kill two senior members of Hamas, and that the site is close to an area used to launch rockets.

According to Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, two 17kg (37lb) munitions were used. Claiming that much of the destruction was caused by a subsequent fire that could not have been solely ignited by munitions of this size, Hagari stated that this was being investigated.

The weaponry used in this strike

Source: Alamuddin Sadiq
Pic: Alamuddin Sadiq

Footage filmed by Palestinian journalist Alamuddin Sadiq at the scene of the strike appears to indicate which specific munition was used.

Recorded the day after the strike, the fragments resemble the tail section of a GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB).

According to Rahul Udoshi, a weapons specialist at the defence intelligence company Janes, the fragment “appears to be tail section of GBU-39 SDB (of Israeli Air Force stock).” Noting the similarity, Udoshi pointed out “the screw and cut section next to that”, which he described as an “exact match”.

Source: JANES
Comparison of munition fragments with reference image. Pic: Janes

Reviewing the same image, Chris Cobb-Smith, a former British army artillery officer and director of Chiron Resources, also concluded that it matched a GBU-39 SDB, describing the munition as “an advanced, state-of-the-art weapon”.

According to Sipri Arms Transfers Database, Israel received 1,000 of these munitions from the US as recently as 2023. Bloomberg, reporting at the time, states that this delivery was accelerated following the 7 October Hamas attack.

Aerial footage

During his statement, Rear Admiral Hagari shared a video showing the strike filmed from above. Highlighting the specific buildings that were targeted, the video shows that out of the four destroyed, these were the second furthest east and the structure immediately to its west.

Source: IDF / Sky News
People visible in IDF footage of area targeted. Pic: IDF

On the loss of innocent life, Hagari said “our aerial surveillance was filming prior to the strike in order to minimise civilian harm”.

In the footage shared by the Israeli military, Sky News identified four people moving in the immediate vicinity of the targeted building in the seconds before it was hit.

Humanitarian zone

Prior to its ground offensive in Rafah, Israel produced a map marking an evacuation area and humanitarian zone.

Source: Sky News
Pic: Sky News

The area targeted lies between these two zones, in the neighbourhood numbered by the Israeli government as 2372.

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