In Gaza, at Least 10 Die at U.N. School Used as Civilian Shelter

New York Times, July 24, 2014


GAZA CITY — A series of explosions at a school run by the United Nations sheltering hundreds of Palestinians who had fled their homes for safety from Israeli military assaults killed at least 10 people on Thursday afternoon and wounded many more. The cause was not immediately clear.

The local director of the United Nations agency operating the shelter, in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, initially said the cause appeared to be an Israeli strike, and many Gazans presumed Israel’s military was responsible.

But United Nations officials said later that they could not be sure, and Israeli military officials said errant Palestinian munitions might have been the source. The Israelis denied having intentionally targeted the school and said they had warned the United Nations three days earlier that the school should be evacuated because the surrounding area was a combat zone.

The civilians who had taken refuge in the school had been gathering in the courtyard preparing to flee just when it was hit multiple times, according to witnesses.
The shelling of the school, on the 17th day of an increasingly bloody conflict between Israel and Gaza-based militants, came just as international diplomacy led by Secretary of State John Kerry was intensifying. Negotiators were trying to establish a cease-fire, with no sign of any imminent breakthrough. Officials with Mr. Kerry’s entourage in Cairo had no immediate comment.

It was unclear what impact, if any, the explosions at the school would have on the course of the conflict, which has left more than 700 Palestinians dead from Israeli attacks, most of them civilians. Thirty-two Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians have been killed.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza said 10 people had been killed and “a large number” wounded at the Beit Hanoun school.

A senior Israeli military official, Brig. Gen. Michael Edelstein, the commander of the Gaza division, told reporters in a telephone briefing that he did not yet know what had happened at the school. “If we made a mistake, we will say it,” he said.

He said Israel was not acting intentionally against any United Nations infrastructure in Gaza. “We would never bomb such a place,” he said.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said that troops had not targeted the school but that fighting was raging nearby. He said several rockets aimed at Israel had fallen short and landed in the area around the same time, suggesting it could have been Palestinian-fired munitions that hit the school.

“Indeed, there was combat there, and we have to determine whether it has anything to do with us,” Colonel Lerner said. “We have decisive information that several projectiles launched from within Gaza struck in Beit Hanoun between 2 o’clock and 4:15.”

Colonel Lerner said the military had “appealed” to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross on Monday to evacuate the school because of what he called “terrorist activities there and because of our activities in the area.” He said word came Thursday afternoon that the aid organizations would move people. Then, 15 minutes later, the school was hit.

“They, unfortunately, did not comply three days ago,” Colonel Lerner said. “We don’t strike schools. We don’t strike U.N. facilities. We do not target the United Nations.”

Jacques de Maio, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation for Israel and the Occupied Territories, the only humanitarian operator currently on the ground in Beit Hanoun, said by telephone that Beit Hanoun represented “a kind of conundrum where two parties are fighting, where you have civilians and military targets that are simply too close to each other.” That did not exonerate either side, he said.

A United Nations official told reporters in New York on Wednesday that at least 72 United Nations schools, hospitals and offices have been damaged in the latest fighting, even though they are visibly marked.

“Each and every one of their GPS references have been provided to the Israeli military,” the official, said John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Thursday was the third time that shelters set up in schools have been struck during the current conflict. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is helping Palestinians displaced by the conflict, said that more than 140,000 residents of Gaza were now staying in 83 schools where it runs shelters.

“We’re extremely concerned now that if this trend continues we will see a mass casualty event,” said Robert Turner, the director of Gaza operations for the agency, citing two incidents from the Gaza conflict in 2008-2009. In one, eight people were killed when a shelter was hit; in the other, 40 people were killed in a strike outside a school.

“It would take just one errant shell into one of these institutions to have major casualties,” Mr. Turner said “They are packed and the people came there specifically seeking refuge because they feel safer in a U.N. installation.”

Mr. Turner said he had few details about the strike in Beit Hanoun, because when he went to investigate, “we got a hostile reception.”

On Wednesday morning, Mr. Turner said, a school with 2,000 people in it in Deir el Balah in the center of this coastal territory was struck in what was believed to be a drone attack. On Tuesday, a boy was injured by an artillery shell at a school in the Mughazi refugee camp. When United Nations workers went in to investigate — after being told by the Israeli authorities that they had a two-hour window in which it would be safe to operate — there was more shelling, Mr. Turner said, though no one was injured.

“We’re concerned that these messages are either not being passed, or if they are being passed they are not being implemented as we would like,” he said of coordination between the Israelis charged with civilian protection and the military. “We’re not questioning the good will and hard work of the people” working with the United Nations, he added, “but we’re concerned about coordination and translation into action on the ground.”

Several people at Beit Hanoun Hospital, one of three facilities where ambulances rushed those wounded in the strike, said that they had been staying in the school for up to a week because shelling near their homes was intense, but that food and water at the United Nations facility had been scarce for the past few days.

“They were shelling close to our houses, so we moved in with some neighbors,” said Nidal Shayboub, 20. “The shelling came to us there, so we went to the school.”

Mr. Shayboub, his pants bloody from a shrapnel wound in his buttocks, said 27 members of his extended family had been staying at the school. A friend came to tell him that four had been killed: Mr. Shaybouv’s mother, brother, and two aunts.

He and others said that militants had not fired from the school at Israeli forces. They suspected, however, that Israeli troops had seen a hole the residents punched through a school wall in order to gain access to a neighbor’s water supply, and had mistaken it for a sign of fighting.

“If the resistance had come to us, we would have died a long time ago,” said Bilal Nassir, suggesting that the presence of militant groups would have brought an earlier Israeli assault. “We had no resistance at all in the area.”

Israeli officials have said schools are among the places where militants store and launch rockets. Twice during this conflict rockets have been discovered at U.N.W.R.A. shelters at schools. Some Israelis have complained that agency personnel turned the rockets over to the security services affiliated with Hamas. Mr. Turner acknowledged that they had given the rockets to the Hamas-controlled interior ministry, but said there had been no one else to call.

Fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants continued elsewhere on Thursday, with more rockets launched from Gaza deep into Israel.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said that at least 25 people were believed dead in the village of Khuza’a, where it said two-thirds of the homes have been destroyed and 60 percent of the population has fled. In the neighboring villages of Abasan and Bani Suheila it said 17 people have been killed.

The northern area of the Gaza Strip around Jabaliya also appeared to be a focus of Israeli strikes overnight. A mosque was destroyed and a residential building was flattened. Residents said that seven people were killed there, at least three of them children.

The Israeli military said that two rocket barrages were fired from Gaza in the morning and about five were intercepted over the Tel Aviv area by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system. Some shrapnel fell in Tel Aviv but there were no reports of serious injuries.

During a visit to Israel, the new British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, laid the blame squarely on Hamas for triggering the current round of violence by “firing hundreds of rockets at Israeli towns and cities indiscriminately and in breach of international humanitarian law.”

But in a joint news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Mr. Hammond also said Britain was “gravely concerned by the ongoing heavy level of casualties” and called for a quick agreement on a cease-fire.

Mr. Netanyahu said: “The terrorists are firing rockets from schools, from mosques, from hospitals, from heavily civilian populations and we have to try and are doing our best to minimize civilian casualties. But we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.”

Mr. Netanyahu also told Mr. Hammond that Israel is grateful that British Airways has continued to fly to Israel over the last few days, as most European carriers suspended service to Israel in recent days because of the danger from rocket fire.

Other European aviation regulators lifted their blanket recommendation to European airlines Thursday afternoon to avoid flights to Israel. The Federal Aviation Administration in Washington lifted its ban on American carriers flying into and out of Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv late Wednesday night, saying it was satisfied with the security precautions Israel had taken.

The F.A.A. had urged American airlines to avoid the airport on Tuesday after a missile fired from Gaza landed nearby. The agency extended the ban, originally for 24 hours, for a second day early Wednesday.

Israel strongly protested the move, which stranded thousands of travelers headed toward or trying to leave Israel, saying its airspace was well protected. El Al, Israel’s national carrier, continued flights throughout the ban.

The European Aviation Safety Agency said Thursday it was recommending that national authorities base decisions on flying to Israel’s main airport “on thorough risk assessments, in particular using risk analysis made by operators,” The Associated Press reported.