UN blames Israeli artillery for killing at least 20 civilians at school shelter in Gaza

Codepink activists, dressed to symbolize those wounded and killed in Gaza, rally outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington on Wednesday.
YURI GRIPAS | REUTERS
Codepink activists, dressed to symbolize those wounded and killed in Gaza, rally outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington on Wednesday.
Posted July 30, 2014, at 9 a.m.
Last modified July 30, 2014, at 7:34 p.m.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli artillery shells slammed into a U.N.-run school sheltering evacuees from the Gaza conflict early Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens as they slept, according to Palestinian health officials and the U.N. agency in charge of the school.

The Israeli military later announced that it would implement a temporary humanitarian cease-fire in the Gaza Strip between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday local time. The cease-fire would not apply to areas in which the military is currently operating, it said.

About an hour before the cease-fire was due to end, explosions rocked Gaza City, and plumes of black smoke rose into the sky. Israeli artillery shells struck a marketplace in eastern Gaza’s Shijaiyah neighborhood, killing at least 15 and injuring about 160, Palestinian health officials said.

Israel said Hamas had been using the temporary cease-fire to rearm. It said the new strikes were unleashed in response to continuing rocket fire into Israel by Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which operated the school-turned-shelter in the Jabalya refugee camp, said the facility in northern Gaza was shelled by Israeli forces and condemned what it called a serious violation of international law. The Israeli army said it was investigating.

Israeli artillery shells slammed into a U.N.-run school sheltering evacuees from the Gaza conflict, killing at least 16 people and wounding dozens of others as they slept, according to Palestinian health officials and the U.N. agency in charge of the school.

“There were five shells, one after the other. We were a clear target,” said Hannah Sweilem, 33, who was in the shelter with her husband and eight children. “If the Israelis say it was a mistake, they are lying.”

“We blame the United Nations,” she added. “We are under their protection.”

Gaza Health Ministry officials said more than 105 people were killed in Israeli strikes overnight and more than 400 injured as Israel pressed ahead with its escalated campaign against the coastal enclave. The Palestinian casualty toll rose to at least 1,340 killed and about 7,200 injured, health officials said. Most of the casualties have been civilians, according to the United Nations.

Israel has lost at least 53 soldiers in the conflict, its largest toll since its 2006 war in Lebanon. Mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza have also killed two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.

In a statement, UNRWA called the attack on the Jabalya Primary School for Girls “a source of universal shame.”

“Last night, children were killed as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom in a U.N.-designated shelter in Gaza,” the agency said. “We have visited the site and gathered evidence,” it added. “We have analyzed fragments, examined craters and other damage. Our initial assessment is that it was Israeli artillery that hit our school, in which 3,300 people had sought refuge.”

“These are people who were instructed to leave their homes by the Israeli army,” UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl said in the statement. He said the school was shelled even though its precise location and the fact that it was housing thousands of evacuees were communicated to the Israeli army 17 times, the last of which was just hours before the attack. Krahenbuhl urged the international community to “take deliberate international political action to put an immediate end to the continuing carnage.”

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said it was the sixth time that one of the organization’s schools has been struck.

Israel has said that some of the facilities are used by Hamas militants to store rockets that are later fired on civilian populations in Israel.

UNRWA said Tuesday that a hidden cache of rockets was discovered at another Gaza school, the third such discovery since the conflict began, and the agency accused unnamed groups of putting civilians at risk.

“We condemn the group or groups who endangered civilians by placing these munitions in our school,” Gunness said in a statement Tuesday. “This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises. We call on all the warring parties to respect the inviolability of U.N. property.” He did not identify the school or say how many weapons were stored there.

UNRWA was unable to send experts to disarm and remove the weapons “because of fighting in the vicinity” but hopes to do so “as soon as the security conditions allow,” the statement said.

A spokesman for the Israeli army, Capt. Eytan Buchman, said Israeli forces in Gaza came under mortar fire earlier Wednesday from a point near the school in the Jabalya camp and responded toward the source of the fire. The incident is being reviewed, he said.

The army said the brief cease-fire it announced would open a “temporary humanitarian window.” But a Hamas spokesman dismissed it as a “media stunt” that would not allow rescue workers to recover casualties in combat zones that Israel was excluding from the cease-fire.

The school strike came one day after some of the heaviest Israeli bombardment in the conflict, during which Israel disabled Gaza’s only electricity plant, leaving the crowded territory’s 1.8 million residents with no electricity or running water.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned his country in a televised address Monday evening to be prepared for a prolonged campaign against Hamas. Israel has said it cannot stop until it dismantles a network of tunnels that it says are used by militants to infiltrate into Israel from Gaza.

Witnesses at the Jabalya Primary School for Girls said shelling struck a classroom where about 50 people, mostly women and children, were sleeping. The classroom’s roof was ripped apart. Most of the dead, however, were young men, who had woken for the traditional Muslim dawn prayer, said Moen al-Masr, a doctor at the Kamal Odwan hospital. He said 10 people were seriously injured.

“We found people torn to pieces,” said Allah al-Bes, 33, who was seeking refuge at the school with his wife and three boys. “It was like hell.” Bes and his family went to the school after an earlier attack on a U.N.-run school in Beit Hanoun. “We have learned no place is safe in Gaza,” he said.

Witnesses said five artillery shells struck the school around 5 a.m., shortly after the morning prayers. One struck the gate, killing several donkeys outside. Inside the destroyed classroom were bloodstained blankets buried in rubble. In one corner, a pink plastic ball sat atop a mound of debris. Youths were picking up body parts and placing them in an orange plastic bag for burial.

Nasser Khafaja, 49, said he had finished praying and had gone back to sleep under a tree near the classroom. But he woke up to go the bathroom. That was when the first shell hit, he said. He ran into the classroom to take cover, but then another shell found it. Shrapnel lacerated his stomach, left arm and face. He ran outside.

“I stepped over people torn apart, flesh and blood,” he recalled. “I ran all the way to the hospital.”

“Who is there to blame except Israel,” Khafaja added. “We didn’t fire rockets from the school. We are all civilians here.”

Expanding its list of targets Tuesday, Israel destroyed the family home of Ismail Haniyeh, the top leader of Hamas. Other airstrikes hit Hamas’ al-Aqsa television broadcast center, a finance building and the homes of local mayors. Haniyeh is in hiding and his whereabouts are unknown.

Along the coast of the seaside enclave, Israel also hit a fishing harbor near hotels where scores of international journalists are staying. Airstrikes also hit the Rafah area, along Gaza’s border with Egypt, according to local news reports.

Near the Nusairat refugee camp, in the middle of the Gaza Strip, the shattered fuel tank of the territory’s primary power plant continued to emit flames and thick plumes of smoke hours after being hit.

The plant is Gaza’s primary source of electricity, powering sewage treatment systems, water pumps and hospitals, said Dardasawi, the Palestinian official. It is especially important, he added, because six of eight electricity supply lines that run from Israel were damaged. Egypt also supplies some electricity, he added, but hardly enough to power the border town of Rafah.

“This is like a time bomb,” said Dardasawi, referring to the potential humanitarian crisis.

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