AUG. 3, 2014
Questions of Weapons and Warnings in Past Barrage on a Gaza Shelter
By BEN HUBBARD and JODI RUDOREN
JABALIYA, Gaza Strip -- An examination of an Israeli barrage that put a line of at least 10 shells through a United Nations school sheltering displaced Palestinians here last week suggests that Israeli troops paid little heed to warnings to safeguard such sites and may have unleashed weapons inappropriate for urban areas despite rising alarm over civilian deaths.
Inspection of the damage, a preliminary United Nations review that collected 30 pieces of shrapnel, and interviews with two dozen witnesses indicate that the predawn strikes on Wednesday, July 30, that killed 21 people at the school, in the crowded Jabaliya refugee camp, were likely to have come from heavy artillery not designed for precision use.
Israeli officials have argued throughout their 27-day air-and-ground campaign against Hamas, the militant group that dominates Gaza, that it is the enemy's insistence on operating near shelters and other humanitarian sites that endangers civilians. But in the Jabaliya case, they provided no evidence of such activity and no explanation for the strike beyond saying that Palestinian militants were firing about 200 yards away.
"It was clear that they were not aiming at a specific house, but fired lots and it fell where it fell," said Abdel-Latif al-Seifi, whose three-story villa just beyond the school's north wall ended up with two large holes in its roof.
The Jabaliya strike has already opened Israel to a new level of global scrutiny. International criticism ratcheted up another notch on Sunday after a missile the Israelis say was meant for three militants on a motorcycle also killed people waiting in line for food outside a United Nations school in Rafah that had been turned into a shelter.
Though Israeli military leaders have declared definitively that no United Nations facility was targeted, Rafah was the sixth shelter struck during the operation. Such strikes have renewed sharp questions about the tactics Israel uses in dense neighborhoods and, especially, near shelters that are supposed to provide refuge to people who follow Israel's own orders to leave areas of fierce fighting.
"Why aren't the safe zones working?" asked Robert Turner, the Gaza director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is sheltering nearly 260,000 people in 90 schools and emails the Israeli authorities with their exact locations twice a day. "Why are the military decisions being made that are leading to these tragedies?"
The Israeli general who heads a committee charged with investigating the civilian impact of ground operations said that he did not know the details of what happened in Jabaliya because the troops involved were still fighting and therefore had not been interviewed. Speaking on the condition of anonymity under military protocol, the general said in an interview that "Hamas people were shooting at" a group of soldiers working to destroy a tunnel in the area. No Israelis were killed or wounded.
The New York Times emailed Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, a map of where the strikes hit and asked him to point out where Israeli forces were operating, and from where in the 200-yard radius around the school they saw enemy fire; he did not respond. Colonel Lerner and the general refused to say what ordnance was deployed.
Asked whether artillery would be appropriate in such a situation, the general said "the question is whether or not they were under great or imminent risk."
"The sheer orders are you are not allowed to fire artillery or mortar shells into urban areas unless there are imminent risks for human lives -- meaning only if you are under deadly fire or under great risk," he said. "The orders are clear. But I find it very difficult to judge those fighters under fire and tell them, 'Look, please open your textbook and read out loud what we told you.' "
A Matter of Precision
The continuing war makes it impossible to determine exactly what happened that morning in Jabaliya, a refugee camp of 100,000 residents in northern Gaza, where the 24-room school was sheltering 3,220 people who had fled from homes closer to the border. But the number, trajectory and blast marks of the shells all point to artillery. United Nations officials said shrapnel from the site had codes matching unexploded shells recovered from other schools that munitions experts identified as 155-millimeter artillery shells.
Damage indicated the shells came from the northeast -- where Israeli artillery units are stationed on the hills outside Gaza's border. Artillery is a "statistics weapon," not a "precision weapon," experts said, generally fired from up to 25 miles away and considered effective if it hits within 50 yards of its target.
"Heavy artillery shelling into a populated area would be inherently indiscriminate," said Bill Van Esveld, a Jerusalem-based Human Rights Watch lawyer who investigates war crimes. "You just can't aim that weapon precisely enough in that environment because it's so destructive."
Gadi Shamni, a retired Israeli general who once commanded the Gaza division, agreed that "smart weapons" were more appropriate than artillery in such places but said that "to rescue forces that are getting into trouble, sometimes you have to use a little more firepower."
"In any war, there are malfunctions and mistakes," General Shamni said. Hamas militants "usually do things in order to attract" Israeli fire, he added, "and hope that some mistake will cause a disaster in order to delegitimize Israel."
It was about 4:40 a.m., not long after the muezzin's call for the dawn prayer, when the shells started, witnesses said. They stopped five minutes later.
The first three shells collapsed roofs and walls in a row of simple cinder-block homes across from the Jabaliya Elementary A & B Girls' School, on a busy residential street dotted with ground-floor barbershops, pharmacies and groceries. Another killed a group of horses and donkeys tied up about 25 yards from the school entrance. At least three landed on the three-story villa.
Two shells slammed the roof of a second-story classroom filled with sleeping women and children, and one exploded in the school courtyard, where men were bowed in prayer among the eucalyptus trees.
"That was the one that took the people," said Mohammed Abu al-Anzein, 35, who dragged a wounded man into a classroom and put a diaper on his head to stanch the bleeding.
The school, which runs morning and afternoon shifts each of 880 students, opened as a shelter on July 16, and two days later had 1,428 residents. By July 29, more than twice that number were packed into classrooms, on balconies and under a large metal hangar still holding two banners with the smiling faces of last year's pupils.
On the surrounding streets, where some walls bear faded posters lauding so-called martyrs from Hamas and other militant factions, no one interviewed said they had seen either Palestinian fighters or Israeli soldiers in the area. A few houses and apartments had been ruined by munitions fired from afar, but there were no bullet holes or empty casings suggesting close clashes.
In the hours before the strikes, explosions and shelling kept many people awake.
"The whole night was terror," Mr. Abu al-Anzein said. "My chest was sore from smoking so many cigarettes."
Ibrahim al-Najjar said he was returning from the mosque when a shell took down the wall of his home across from the school, wounding his sister. Two relatives injured by other blasts raced to the school to summon ambulances, and ended up among the dead in the courtyard.
Mike Cole, the United Nations agency's field legal officer, was awakened by a call from the shelter at 5:55 a.m. The initial report, which he recorded longhand in a spiral notebook, was 16 dead.
At 6:04 a.m., Mr. Cole wrote, it was 20 dead with 45 wounded at two hospitals. Fourteen minutes later, he was told that a United Nations guard was among those killed. By 7:15, shelling in the area had started up again, and people were panicking about whether to stay or go. So Mr. Turner called his contact at Israel's Coordination and Liaison Administration, the go-between for international organizations and the Israeli military.
"My impression was that he hadn't heard about the first incident," Mr. Turner said. "The immediate feedback of the C.L.A. was that it wasn't them."
The C.L.A. always has on hand a list of the United Nations' 250 installations across Gaza, each of them topped with a United Nations flag. During the war, Mr. Turner's agency has supplemented that with lists of the schools serving as shelters, accompanied by a reminder that international law requires "all necessary actions and precautions that will prevent any damage to U.N. facilities."
Jabaliya was No. 11 on the three-page list emailed at 8:48 p.m. the day before the strikes.
"We really do have good relations with these people, but what is happening after they get the information?" Mr. Turner asked. "Our concern is the lack of coordination between C.L.A. and the kinetic forces in the field."
Requests to interview C.L.A. representatives were not granted, and detailed written questions about the Jabaliya episode were not answered.
In a broader briefing before the strike, an official who oversees the agency pointed out several times where rockets were launched from some of the 523 "sensitive sites" on its list. Rockets have also been found in three empty United Nations schools. "Terrorists shooting on our soldiers, our soldiers reacting," he said. "This is a combat situation. It needs to be investigated."
In Israel's last ground invasion of Gaza, in 2009, mortar shelling outside a shelter at Al Fakhura School  -- also in Jabaliya -- killed up to 40 people in what a United Nations panel led by Richard Goldstone found was "indiscriminate in violation of international law." While Mr. Goldstone later retracted his report's most explosive accusation -- that Israel had intentionally killed civilians -- he did not specifically change his assessment on Al Fakhura.
In that case, Israel at first claimed that militants were firing mortar shells from the school just before the strike, but after a preliminary inquiry, said that the fire was 80 meters away. The Goldstone report  could not determine whether there had been Palestinian fire from the school or nearby, but concluded that the attack "cannot meet the test of what a reasonable commander would have determined to be an acceptable loss of civilian life for the military advantage sought."
The first deadly strike at a shelter during the current Israel-Hamas battle was in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun,  where 16 people were killed on July 24 even as the United Nations was preparing to pull out its staff and curtail food service there after three days of Israeli warnings that the site was no longer safe.
Colonel Lerner, the Israeli military spokesman, said Palestinians had fired antitank missiles from near the Beit Hanoun school, and that the only ordnance to hit the site was a mortar shell nearly an hour before the fatal blasts. The military published a video clip in which the courtyard looked empty at the time.
"Why just show us the 14 seconds that shows the empty courtyard? Why not show us the antitank fire? Why not show us the response?" asked Mr. Turner, the United Nations official. "There are desks in the courtyard, there are trees in the courtyard -- none of that is clear in the video, because the video is so poor. If you can't see a desk, a pile of desks, how can you tell if there are people?"
The Israeli general in charge of the after-action investigations said more evidence would be forthcoming -- eventually.
"We're going to analyze one by one," he said. "The question is could you do it differently, and if yes, why didn't you, and if not, O.K., then you have to show us. We will know why they did what they did."
The United Nations sent photographs of the munitions it recovered in Jabaliya, details about what was hit and what they had determined to be the trajectories of incoming rounds to the C.L.A. at 11:39 a.m. on the day of the strike. It has sealed the shrapnel in evidence bags, ready to hand over, along with a list of more than 3,000 potential witnesses, their identification numbers and contact information.
Most are still staying in the shelter. On Wednesday night, Asma Ghabin, who had 10 stitches in her thigh where doctors had removed shrapnel, lay with her two toddler sons on a thin mattress, in the same spot where she had been wounded hours before.
Ben Hubbard reported from Jabaliya, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem. Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza.