Why chaos and power vacuum in Sudan are a global security concern

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Sudanese Army soldiers walk near tanks stationed on a street in southern Khartoum on May 6, 2023, amid ongoing fighting against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. (AFP)
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Sudanese refugees live on makeshift shelters near the border between Sudan and Chad in Koufroun, Chad, on May 6, 2023. (REUTERS)
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Sudanese refugee women fleeing the violence in their country struggle to load a barrel on a donkey as they prepare to go to the water point, near the border between Sudan and Chad in Koufroun, Chad, on May 7, 2023. (REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)
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People fleeing war-torn Sudan queue to board a boat at Port Sudan on April 28, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 13 May 2023
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Why chaos and power vacuum in Sudan are a global security concern

  • Grinding conflict makes impoverished country of 45 million people a strategic target for regional extremist groups
  • North Africa, Central Africa and Horn of Africa are already teeming with heavily armed radical Islamic organizations

DUBAI: The power struggle between Sudan’s de-facto ruler and commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and Gen. Mohamed Dagalo and his Rapid Support Forces (RSF), has now been raging for three brutal weeks.

What began as tensions over the planned integration of Dagalo’s paramilitary group into the Sudanese military reached a flashpoint on April 15, when the two former allies, who had worked together to oust dictator Omar Al-Bashir less than four years ago, fell out, plunging the country into chaos.

Among the many questions on the minds of Africa analysts and geopolitical experts is whether a protracted, bitter feud between the two generals will do to Sudan what similar internecine conflicts in recent decades have done to two large, now largely ungoverned countries in North Africa — Libya and Somalia.

For the past 25 years, US administrations have regarded as Sudan as geostrategically important to their interests in both Africa and the Middle East. In the early 1990s, under the influence of the National Islamic Front (NIF), Sudan had a government hospitable to militant groups of all stripes, notably Al-Qaeda.

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In 1993, the US placed Sudan on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, but by 1996, the country was viewed as a refuge, nexus and training hub for a number of international terrorist organizations, primarily of Middle Eastern origin. That year, following the passage of three critical UN Security Council resolutions, Sudan ordered the expulsion of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden from its soil in May.

Two years later, in retaliation for the deadly Aug. 7 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa, the Bill Clinton administration ordered cruise missile strikes on a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, claiming that the site was used by Al-Qaeda to produce ingredients for chemical weapons.




A view of the al-Shifaa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum after it was bombed by a US jets on August 20, 1998. (AFP File)

Over the past decade, however, Sudan has adhered to its commitments in peace deals in both Darfur and what became South Sudan, and has maintained counterterrorism cooperation with its international partners. But these achievements are in peril as the impoverished country of 45 million people sinks into a morass of lawlessness, organized criminality and economic collapse.

In recent weeks, parts of Khartoum have become war zones and civilians have poured into neighboring countries, whose own conditions are fragile owing to the risks and vulnerabilities they face. The UN refugee agency recently estimated that 800,000 people are expected to flee the conflict — many of them refugees from other countries.

The clashes have killed about 700 people so far, most of them in Khartoum and the western Darfur region, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

INNUMBERS

800,000 Total number of people expected to flee the conflict in Sudan, as estimated by the UN refugee agency.

700 Death toll in the conflict, according to the non-profit organization Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

1,700 Number of people wounded during the first 11 days of the conflict, as estimated by ACLED.

While the numbers of casualties and the displaced continue to rise and horrify the world, some analysts warn that the conflict may be a harbinger of a grim consequence — Sudan’s transformation into a hotbed of terrorism.

They say that if the fighting continues and troop losses mount, it is bound to create not only ungoverned spaces for terrorists to exploit, but also tempt the two feuding factions to cut deals with regional militant groups and set the stage for a spiral of warfare and lawlessness.




An RSF patrol is seen near the presidential palace in Khartoum in this photo taken on May 1, 2023. (Rapid Support Forces handout via AFP)

Hafed Al-Ghwell, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Schools of Advanced International Studies, says the combination of a fragile security situation, economic crisis, social unrest and unstable neighborhood creates the perfect conditions for the emergence of extremist groups.

Given Sudan’s history of harboring extremist groups as well as growing instability, terrorist organizations such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda may set their eyes on the country as a potential new base. “Both the militant Islamic groups have operated in Sudan in the past. The potential for Daesh’s emergence in the country is compounded by its geographic location,” Al-Ghwell told Arab News.

“Sharing a border with Libya, Chad and Somalia, where violent extremist groups continue to operate, the porous borders and weak security infrastructure in the region create perfect conditions for terrorists to relocate and move weapons, contraband and other illicit supplies.”




Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab recruits walk down a street on March 5, 2012 in the Deniile district of Somalian capital, Mogadishu, following their graduation. (AFP File Photo)

All this, according to Al-Ghwell, is a cause for concern not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe and the world at large.

Sudan’s strategic location, bordering the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region, has seen it affected by regional disputes. For example, the country’s relationship with neighboring Ethiopia has been strained over tensions related to disputed farmlands along the border.

The African continent is also home to terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in northwest Africa and the Sahel region. Moreover, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab also have ties to Al-Qaeda.




An image made available by propaganda Islamist media outlet Welayat Tarablos on February 18, 2015, shows Daesh militants parading in a street in Libya's coastal city of Sirte. (AFP)

Al-Ghwell says that a comeback by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was previously one of the Sudanese regime’s strongest backers, is a potential cause for concern.

“It is crucial that the international community remains vigilant in monitoring the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. Past escalations in Sudan, even including a failed military coup attempt in September 2021, have been blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“While it is difficult to predict with some certainty the exact likelihood of the Muslim Brotherhood’s return, there are several factors that suggest that the group could make a comeback in Sudan.”

The Muslim Brotherhood has a history in the country dating back to the 1950s, when the group established its first Sudanese branch. Over the next several decades, it continued to strengthen its presence in Sudan, reaching its zenith in 1989 when the Muslim Brotherhood-backed NIF seized power.




This photo taken on July 7, 1989 shows Sudanese military officials greeting General Omar Al-Bashir, who seized power from the civilian government of Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi in a coup on June 30, 1989. (AFP file)

Led by military officer and eventual Sudanese head of state Omar Al-Bashir, the NIF, which in the late 1990s changed its name to the National Congress Party (NCP), dominated Sudanese politics until the 2019 Sudanese coup d’etat. Al-Bashir’s government was accused of a litany of human rights violations, including supporting the infamous Janjaweed militias during the war in Darfur in 2004.

After 2019, the NCP was officially banned and forced underground. However, amid mounting chaos in Sudan, the country’s volatile political climate may provide favorable conditions for a return of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“If the Muslim Brotherhood were to successfully re-emerge in Sudan and consolidate its gains, it could pose a significant threat to the country itself and its neighbors. The group’s ideology could lead to a state-sanctioned crackdown on civil liberties and human rights in Sudan, stoking further unrest and potentially leading to more violence,” Al-Ghwell said.




Sudan has a history of harboring terrorists and extremist groups. One was Carlos the Jackal (Ilich Ramirez Sanchez), who was captured by French agents in Sudan in 1994 (left frame). It also once harbored Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama Bin Laden, whose portrait is shown in this combo image with Sudanese sympathizers holding prayers on May 3, 2011, in Khartoum, after he was shot dead at this hide-out in Pakistani by US commandos. (AFP file photos)

“Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood has a history of supporting militant groups and extremist ideologies. If the group were to gain power in Sudan, it could provide a haven for terrorist organizations and pose a threat to regional stability.”

With the war in Yemen seemingly moving at a slower pace, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could emerge as another major threat if it seeks to move its operations to Sudan.

According to Al-Ghwell, the absence of a proper security infrastructure will make it relatively easy for AQAP to move fighters and weapons into Sudan to support cells there, or use the country as a transit point to sustain the operations of AQIM.




An image grab from a video released on March 29, 2014 by Al-Malahem Media, shows AQAP militants at an undisclosed location in Yemen. (AFP)

“A recent article in the Long War Journal says that an Al-Qaeda ideologue has called for holy war in Sudan and provided guidelines for supporters looking to join the fight. The book, which was compiled by the ideologue Abu Hudhayfah Al-Sudani and released by an extremist publishing house believed to be linked to AQAP, provides ideological justification and guidelines for waging holy war against the Sudanese state, as well as rules for prospective extremists to follow when forming a new entity,” he said.

Although multiple ceasefire agreements between the SAF and RSF have been reached since fighting first erupted in Sudan, they have quickly broken down, with the dueling factions trading blame for the collapse.

Al-Ghwell says that humanitarian aid such as water, shelter, food and medical assistance must be provided to fleeing civilians as well as the internally displaced, while financial support is vital to help stabilize the economy and nip a resurgence of extremism in the bud.




Sudanese citizens dig small holes at the shore to get potable water at the banks of the White Nile amid a water supply shortage as clashes continue in Khartoum on May 6, 2023. (REUTERS)

Looking to the future, he says, the international community should take pre-emptive action by sharing intelligence with, and training, Sudanese security forces to prevent the spread of extremist groups that could take advantage of the power vacuum.

When the fighting between Al-Burhan and Dagalo will end remains unclear. Both factions have claimed territorial control over key areas in Khartoum and other parts of the country.

Fayez, a Sudanese civilian who wanted to be identified only by his first name, recently shared with Arab News his thoughts on having to flee his homeland and his fears for the future. He was exhausted after completing a perilous journey from Sudan through the northern border into Egypt along with his new bride.




Sudanese people carry suitcases in the town of Wadi Halfa bordering Egypt on May 4, 2023 as they flee the fighting between rival Sudanese generals. (AFP)

“We managed, we survived. I don’t know what Sudan will turn into; I dread to think about it. Rather than waking up to the sound of prayer, my loved ones who are still stuck there are waking up to the sound of explosions,” Fayez said.

“I pray for their safety, I pray for my country, I pray we don’t turn into the worst version of ourselves and the worst, and wrong version of Islam, and kill each other under false ideologies.”

 


Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights

Updated 19 April 2024
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Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights

  • Emirates suspends check-in for all customers in its network travelling with onward connections through Dubai

DUBAI: Dubai’s flagship airline Emirates is suspending check-in for all customers with onward connections through the city until 2359 GMT on Friday, three days after a record storm swept the United Arab Emirates.

Emirates, one of the world’s biggest international airlines, said customers traveling to Dubai as their final destination may check-in and travel as usual.

The suspension shows the airline and its hub, Dubai International Airport, are still struggling to clear a backlog of flights after the UAE saw its heaviest rains in the 75 years records have been kept, bringing much of the country to a standstill for two days and causing significant damage.

Thousands of passengers have been affected by flight cancelations this week, Dubai Airports Chief Executive Paul Griffiths told local radio station Dubai Eye on Friday, after the storm flooded taxiways.

Dubai Airports Chief Operating Officer Majed Al-Joker said on Thursday that Dubai International Airport would resume normal operations within 24 hours and signalled a return to full capacity and regular schedule, state news agency WAM reported.

The storm, which hit neighboring Oman on Sunday, pounded the UAE on Tuesday, with 20 reported dead in Oman and one in the UAE.

Dubai’s budget carrier flydubai meanwhile canceled flights to Iran on Friday after receiving an official alert, a statement said.

“In line with the issued NOTAM (notice to air missions), our flights to Iran today have been canceled,” said the statement.

One flight which had already departed for Tehran returned to Dubai after the Iranian capital’s airport was closed, it added.

Flights were suspended across swathes of Iran as Iranian state media reported explosions in the central province of Isfahan.

Flight-tracking software showed commercial flights avoiding western Iran, including Isfahan, and skirting Tehran to the north and east.

The main road that connects the UAE’s most populous emirate Dubai with Abu Dhabi remains partially closed, while an alternative route into Dubai requires vehicles to use a road that is entirely covered in floodwater where cars and buses have been abandoned.

In the UAE’s north, including in the emirate of Sharjah, people were reportedly still trapped in their homes, while others there said there had been extensive damage to businesses.

Rains are rare in the UAE and elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, which is typically known for its dry desert climate where summer air temperatures can soar above 50 degrees Celsius.

The UAE’s National Center of Meteorology said on social platform X that Monday may see light rainfall by late night and forecast “a chance of light to moderate rainfall, might be heavy at times over some areas” for Tuesday, with a fall in temperatures over some coastal areas.


Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes

Updated 19 April 2024
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Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes

  • Drones shot down over Isfahan, says Iranian state media
  • Israel military refuses to comment on incident

DUBAI/WASHINGTON: Israeli missiles have hit a site in Iran, ABC News reported late on Thursday, citing a US official, while Iranian state media reported an explosion in the center of the country, days after Iran launched a retaliatory drone strike on Israel.

Commercial flights began diverting their routes early Friday morning over western Iran without explanation as one semiofficial news agency in the Islamic Republic claimed there had been “explosions” heard over the city of Isfahan.

Some Emirates and Flydubai flights that were flying over Iran early on Friday made sudden sharp turns away from the airspace, according to flight paths shown on tracking website Flightradar24.

“Flights over Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran cities have been suspended,” state media reported.

Iranian officials said its air defenses did shot down several drones but there had been “no missile attack for now” on the country.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday morning across several provinces after reports of explosions near the city of Isfahan.

Several drones “have been successfully shot down by the country’s air defense, there are no reports of a missile attack for now,” Iran’s space agency spokesman Hossein Dalirian says on X.

The Fars news agency said “three explosions” were heard near the Shekari army airbase near Isfahan.

Iran’s local media also reported that nuclear facilities in Isfahan were “completely secure” after explosions were heard near the area.

“Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reports, quoting “reliable sources.”

Israel had said it would retaliate against Iran’s weekend attack, which involved hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the Iranian drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

Several Iranian nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Isfahan, Isome 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is also home to a major air base for the Iranian military.

Meanwhile in Iraq where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents in Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

In Syria, a local activist group said strikes hit an army position in the south of the country Friday. 

“There were strikes on a Syrian army radar position,” said Rayan Maarouf, who runs the Suwayda24 anti-government website that covers news from Sweida province in the south.

Iranian military positions in Syria had been frequently targetted by Israeli air strikes over the past years. Early this month, an Israeli strike demolished a consular building annex of the Iranian Embassy in Sydia's capital Damascus, killing 13 people, including two generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, triggering the Iranian missiles and drones attack on Israel on April 13.

At the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Iran urged member nations that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the UN secretary-general warned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

Israel had said it was going to retaliate against Iran’s April 13 missile and drone attack.

Analysts and observers have been raising concerns about the risks of the Israel-Gaza war spreading into the rest of the region.

Oil prices and jumped on the reports of the Israeli strike. Brent crude futures rose 2 percent to $88.86 a barrel, the dollar gained broadly, gold rose 1 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 1 percent.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military offensive has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.
Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, launching attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.


United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media

Updated 19 April 2024
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United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media

  • US media: Israel had provided Washington with pre-notification of the strike
  • Tehran’s two major airports resumed flights following a brief suspension

DUBAI/WASHINGTON/TEHRAN: The United States received advance notice of Israel’s reported strike on Iran but did not endorse the operation or play any part in its execution, US media quoted officials as saying.

NBC and CNN, citing sources familiar with the matter and a US official, respectively, said Israel had provided Washington with pre-notification of the strike.

Various networks cited officials confirming a strike had taken place inside Iran, with CNN quoting one official as stating the target was not a nuclear facility.

Israel told the United States on Thursday it would be retaliating against Iran in the coming days, a senior US official told CNN.

“We didn’t endorse the response,” the official said, according to CNN.

There was no immediate comment from the White House about the Israeli strike.

In response to a query from AFP, the Pentagon duty desk said: “We do not have anything to offer at this time.”

Iran activated its air defense system over several cities, state media reported, after the country’s official broadcaster said explosions were heard near the central city of Isfahan.

Israel warned it would hit back after Iran fired hundreds of missiles and drones at its arch-foe over the weekend. Most of them were intercepted.

That weekend barrage came in the wake of an attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus widely blamed on Israel.

Tehran’s two major airports resumed flights on Friday, state media reported, following a brief suspension after explosions were heard in central Iran.

“Flights through Imam Khomeini and Mehrabad airports have resumed,” the official IRNA news agency reported.

Commercial flights began diverting their routes early Friday morning over western Iran without explanation as one semiofficial news agency in the Islamic Republic claimed there had been “explosions” heard over the city of Isfahan.

Some Emirates and Flydubai flights that were flying over Iran early on Friday made sudden sharp turns away from the airspace, according to flight paths shown on tracking website Flightradar24.

“Flights over Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran cities have been suspended,” state media reported.

Iranian officials said its air defenses did shot down several drones but there had been “no missile attack for now” on the country.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday morning across several provinces after reports of explosions near the city of Isfahan.

Several drones “have been successfully shot down by the country’s air defense, there are no reports of a missile attack for now,” Iran’s space agency spokesman Hossein Dalirian says on X.

The Fars news agency said “three explosions” were heard near the Shekari army airbase near Isfahan.

Iran’s local media also reported that nuclear facilities in Isfahan were “completely secure” after explosions were heard near the area.

“Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reports, quoting “reliable sources.”

Israel had said it would retaliate against Iran’s weekend attack, which involved hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the Iranian drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

Several Iranian nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Isfahan, Isome 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is also home to a major air base for the Iranian military.


Meanwhile in Iraq where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents in Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

In Syria, a local activist group said strikes hit an army position in the south of the country Friday. 

“There were strikes on a Syrian army radar position,” said Rayan Maarouf, who runs the Suwayda24 anti-government website that covers news from Sweida province in the south.

Iranian military positions in Syria had been frequently targetted by Israeli air strikes over the past years. Early this month, an Israeli strike demolished a consular building annex of the Iranian Embassy in Sydia's capital Damascus, killing 13 people, including two generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, triggering the Iranian missiles and drones attack on Israel on April 13.

At the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Iran urged member nations that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the UN secretary-general warned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

 

Israel had said it was going to retaliate against Iran’s April 13 missile and drone attack.

Analysts and observers have been raising concerns about the risks of the Israel-Gaza war spreading into the rest of the region.

Oil prices and jumped on the reports of the Israeli strike. Brent crude futures rose 2 percent to $88.86 a barrel, the dollar gained broadly, gold rose 1 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 1 percent.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military offensive has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.

Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, launching attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.


Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

Updated 19 April 2024
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Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned on Friday the US veto that ended a long-shot Palestinian bid for full United Nations membership.
“Hamas condemns the American veto at the Security Council of the draft resolution granting Palestine full membership in the United Nations,” the Gaza Strip rulers said in a statement, which comes amid growing international concern over the toll inflicted by the war in the besieged Palestinian territory.
The veto by Israel’s main ally and military backer had been expected ahead of the vote, which took place more than six months into Israel’s offensive in Gaza, in retaliation for the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas militants.
Twelve countries voted in favor of the draft resolution, which was introduced by Algeria and “recommends to the General Assembly that the State of Palestine be admitted to membership of the United Nations.” Britain and Switzerland abstained.


Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike

Updated 19 April 2024
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Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike

  • ‘We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet. They were all torn to pieces’

An Israeli strike hit the home where a displaced Palestinian family was sheltering in the southern city of Rafah, relatives and neighbors said as they scraped at the soil with their hands.

Al-Arja said the blast killed at least 10 people.

“We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet. They were all torn to pieces.

“This is horrifying. It’s not normal,” he said, hauling concrete and broken olive branches from the wreckage. “The entire world is complicit.”

Soon after the war began on Oct. 7, Israel told Palestinians living in the north of Gaza to move to “safe zones” in the territory’s south, like Rafah.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since vowed to invade the city, where around 1.5 million people live in shelters, more than half the territory’s population.

“How is Rafah a safe place?” said Zeyad Ayyad, a relative of the victims. He sighed as he cradled a fragment of the remains.

“I heard the bombing last night and then went back to sleep. I did not think it hit my aunt’s house.”

The search for remains was long and painful. The strike left a huge crater and children picked through the rubble while neighbors removed debris, tarpaulin, a pink top.

“We can see them under the rubble and we’re unable to retrieve them,” Al-Arja said. 

“These are people who came from the north because it was said the south is safe.”

“They struck without any warning,” he said.

In a separate strike on the house in Rafah’s Al-Salam neighborhood overnight on Tuesday, rescue crews recovered the corpses of eight family members, including five children and two women, Gaza’s civil defense service said.

“An Israeli rocket hit a house of displaced people,” said resident Sami Nyrab. 

“My sister’s son-in-law, her daughter, and her children were having dinner when an Israeli missile demolished their house over their heads.”