Airstrike Near U.N. School Kills 10 as Israel Shifts Troops in Gaza

New York Times, August 2, 2014


JERUSALEM — As Israel began to redeploy significant numbers of its troops away from populated areas of Gaza on Sunday, an Israeli Air Force missile struck near the entrance of a United Nations school sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah, killing 10 people and wounding 35 others and drawing a new round of international condemnation.

The growing civilian death toll has stirred outrage in Europe and large parts of the Arab world and, combined with Sunday’s strike near the Rafah school, prompted Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations to call the attack a “moral outrage and a criminal act” and to demand that those responsible for the “gross violation of international humanitarian law” be held accountable.

The State Department also condemned in harsh terms what it called “today’s disgraceful shelling” outside the school in Rafah. Witnesses near the school, where about 3,000 Palestinians had sought shelter, said that those killed or hurt were waiting in line for food supplies when a missile hit. A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said that “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”

The Israeli Army said that it had targeted with the missile three members of Islamic Jihad on a motorcycle near the school, not the school itself, and was investigating a possible secondary explosion when the motorcycle was hit.

Even as Israel moved unilaterally to reduce military contact with Palestinians on the ground in Gaza, while waiting to see how the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad would respond, it continued to fight around Rafah, near the border with Egypt. On Sunday, 71 Palestinians died, raising the total to 1,822, with 9,370 injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Estimates of the number of Palestinian combatants killed varied widely, with some Israeli officials suggesting that number was more than 700. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Saturday that of the 1,525 dead Palestinians to that point, “at least 1,033 are civilians, of whom 329 are children and 187 are women.”

On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and three civilians have died. Israeli officials confirmed Sunday that one of the fallen soldiers was a relative of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

With its stated task of destroying Hamas’s tunnel network into Israel within days of being finished, Israel seemed to be trying to de-escalate the war without negotiating with Hamas, much as it did at the end of the last major Gaza operation, in 2009, when Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire. Large numbers of Israeli troops were moving to positions just inside Gaza, while others were redeploying to Israel.

Early Monday, the Israel Defense Forces announced a “temporary humanitarian window,” or cease-fire, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., though it said it did not apply to areas where soldiers are “currently operating,” like Rafah.

Earlier, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli Army spokesman, said that there were “substantial redeployments of the troops on the ground who will be regrouping, receiving further orders.” Some forces were still operating inside Gaza, especially around Rafah, he said, and the air force was continuing to bomb Gaza.

“It’s changing gears, but it’s still ongoing,” he said. Israel has never said precisely how many troops are operating in Gaza, only that there are “thousands.”

Mohammed Muafai, who works for the United Nations, said that he was inside the school when the missile hit. In a telephone interview, he said there were bodies on the ground, including two guards and a sanitation worker. He said seven more people from displaced families also died, including one selling flavored ice.

Last Wednesday, 21 Palestinians who sought refuge in a school run by the United Nations in the Jabaliya refugee camp were killed, health ministry officials said, in a series of predawn strikes. The Israeli military has said that it did not target the school and that Palestinian fighters were operating within 200 yards that morning. After an earlier strike on a school serving as a shelter in Beit Hanoun killed 16, the Israelis acknowledged that they fired a mortar round that hit the courtyard, but insisted that it had been empty at the time.

Earlier on Sunday, airstrikes killed at least 30 Palestinians, medics and witnesses said.

Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Palestinian Health Ministry, said that nine members of a family were killed in an air attack in Rafah. Earlier Sunday, six Palestinians were killed in separate airstrikes on houses in the Nuseirat refugee camp.

Israel said that 55 rockets were fired from Gaza on Sunday, and that its troops killed eight Hamas fighters in southern Gaza.

Israeli officials on Sunday defended their decision to announce the death of a missing Israeli soldier at 2 a.m., only hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on national television to say that he had no new information about the case.

Army spokesmen said Sunday that the declaration of the death of the soldier, Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, was made as soon as possible and that DNA tests had been carried out on partial remains. The lieutenant and two colleagues were attacked by a Hamas squad that emerged from a tunnel on Friday, the army said. One of the Hamas fighters had exploded a suicide belt.

“We can’t determine if he was killed on the ground or from the blast,” said Colonel Lerner, the army spokesman. “The indications on the ground are that he was killed in the initial attack.”

He said that the tests had been carried out during the Sabbath because it was an emergency. The relatives of Lieutenant Goldin had made emotional appeals earlier on Saturday, before Mr. Netanyahu spoke, that Israel and its army not leave the lieutenant behind, and they said that they believed he was still alive.

The family buried him on Sunday in an emotional funeral attended by thousands at the military cemetery in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv.

Zmira Saar, 65, a nurse, said she attended the funeral to honor Israel’s soldiers. “I came not because of this soldier but to show my pain and thanks to all the soldiers who gave their lives for us” in what she called “a no-choice war.” She said she felt “pain for the children and innocent people in Gaza,” and as a nurse, she said, “it is an ongoing pain” for all “the children that we bury here.”

Hamas’s military wing, while taking responsibility for the operation, said Saturday that it had no information about the lieutenant and had lost contact with its squad, suggesting that all involved were dead.

Lieutenant Goldin is a relative of Mr. Yaalon, the defense minister. Mr. Yaalon’s grandfather and the grandmother of the lieutenant’s father were brother and sister. Mr. Yaalon lectured at Lieutenant Goldin’s school.

Israel’s military censor had blocked publication of that detail of their family relationship until the death was announced Sunday, concerned that Hamas might try to profit from that knowledge. International journalists must agree in writing to comply with the censorship system to work in Jerusalem; Friday was the first time in more than six years that the censor had contacted The New York Times.

Later Sunday, Mr. Yaalon posted on Twitter in Hebrew: “Hadar Goldin of blessed memory was a member of my family. I have known him since he was born. He and I.D.F. fighters who fell went to battle to return the quiet and the security to Israel. I embrace the families.”