JULY 30, 2014
Israeli Shells Are Said to Hit a U.N. School
By BEN HUBBARD and JODI RUDOREN
JABALIYA, Gaza Strip -- The strikes came in rapid succession. Around 5 a.m. on Wednesday at a United Nations school at the Jabaliya refugee camp, where 3,300 Palestinians had taken refuge from the fierce fighting in their Gaza Strip neighborhoods, what appeared to be four Israeli artillery shells hit the compound.
One hit the street in front of the entrance, according to several witnesses. Two others hit classrooms where people were sleeping, and a fourth struck a house behind the school.
Palestinian health officials said at least 20 people had been killed by what witnesses and United Nations officials said was the latest in a series of strikes on United Nations facilities that are supposed to be safe zones in the 23-day-old battle between Israel and Hamas and other militants.
"My house was burned, and death followed us here," said Ahmed Mousa, 50, who was in the school courtyard when the shells hit. "Where am I supposed to go?"
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the Israeli military said no United Nations facility had been targeted. A military spokeswoman said that Palestinian militants had "opened fire at Israeli soldiers from the vicinity" of the school on Wednesday morning, and that Israeli troops had "responded by firing toward the origins of the fire."
But in his strongest comments to date on attacks on United Nations installations in Gaza, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in San Jose, Costa Rica, that "nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children," according to a transcript provided by his office.
And responding to Israel's statements that its soldiers had been reacting to rocket fire from near the school, the United Nations deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, referred to the Geneva Conventions, which in laying out the rules of war unequivocally prohibit attacks on schools and hospitals. "This is a moment where you really have to say, 'Enough is enough,' and you have to search for the right words to convince those who have the power to stop this," Mr. Eliasson said.
In Washington, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council said in a statement that the United States condemned both the shelling of the school and "those responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza."
"All of these actions, and similar ones earlier in the conflict, are inconsistent with the U.N.'s neutrality," the statement added.
The United Nations has strenuously argued  that no rockets were hidden in schools that were being used as shelters. It adds that it was its own officials who found rockets in schools they had abandoned because of fighting nearby, and who publicly condemned those who used the installations to store weapons.
The Israeli military earlier denied responsibility for 16 deaths last week at a different United Nations school  serving as a shelter, in Beit Hanoun, saying the only piece of Israeli ordnance to hit the school compound, an errant mortar, had struck when the courtyard was empty.
Robert Turner, the Gaza-based director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is sheltering more than 200,000 Palestinians in 85 of its schools, said Wednesday that there had been at least five and perhaps seven strikes on the facilities since Israel's ground operation in Gaza began on July 17. He was still checking reports that a school in the Shati refugee camp and one in the Mamouniya neighborhood of Gaza City had been hit overnight.
"What we've seen in our shelters is indicative of what we've seen more generally," Mr. Turner said. "When they started naval bombardment, artillery and tank fire, that's just not as accurate as airstrikes. They can't see what they're shooting at."
Six United Nations workers have been killed in the conflict.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Israeli military announced a four-hour humanitarian cease-fire but said that it would not apply to places where soldiers were operating, and that residents should not return to areas they had been asked to evacuate. That only added to the confusion after four days of on-again, off-again lulls and mixed messages from various leaders about cease-fires and negotiations.
In an apparent outcome of the confusion, at least 17 Palestinians were reported killed and as many as 200 were wounded when multiple shells hit an area in east Gaza City's Shejaiya neighborhood, which residents thought was temporarily safe but which the Israelis considered part of a combat zone. The dead included a Palestinian photojournalist and civil defense worker.
"Firefighters and ambulances arrived, then more shells -- five or six landed," said Mohammed Shamaly, 32, whose home was in the targeted neighborhood of car-repair garages and other workshops on Saladin Street. "I saw bodies torn apart," he said.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said at least 10 people had been killed in Israeli strikes elsewhere during Israel's unilateral four-hour pause.
The "window" was to be from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and the military said troops would "respond to any attempt to exploit this window to harm Israeli civilians" and soldiers. Hamas rejected the Israeli-declared lull, saying in a statement that it was "just for media consumption and has no value" because it excluded the areas near the border where hostilities continued, making it impossible to evacuate the wounded from there.
The Israeli announcement came after Israel appeared to have intensified its assault overnight, even as Palestinian leaders struggled to coordinate their efforts to pursue a cease-fire through talks in Cairo.
By evening, the Palestinian death toll since the latest conflict began on July 8 totaled at least 1,328, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Three Israeli soldiers were killed Wednesday while uncovering a tunnel shaft under a house in southern Gaza, the military announced, bringing the total number of dead to 56; two Israeli civilians and a foreign farmworker have also been killed by mortar and rocket fire.
Israel has hit 4,100 sites in Gaza: 1,566 of them connected to rocket launching, 167 that stored weapons and 746 "command-and-control centers," the Israeli military said in its statement. The military said that 2,670 rockets and mortars had been fired toward Israel, and that about 280 of them had fallen short and landed within Gaza.
Far fewer sirens signaling incoming rockets sounded in Israel on Wednesday than in previous days. But in Gaza, there was little sign of a letup. Among the casualties were 10 members of the Astal family who were killed by an Israeli missile as they huddled in their diwan, or meeting room, according to news reports and the Health Ministry.
Jabaliya, a refugee camp just north of Gaza City, has been under intense shelling since Tuesday afternoon, with 50 people killed over a 24-hour period, health officials said. Already one of Gaza's most densely crowded areas, its streets were packed in recent days with people who had fled their homes closer to the border. More and more had crowded into the Abu Hussein girls' elementary school.
Mr. Turner of the United Nations said his agency had provided the GPS coordinates of the school to the Israel Defense Forces 17 times, first on July 16 and most recently on Tuesday at 8:48 p.m. Ziad Yousef, who also works for the agency, said the doors had been locked at 11 p.m. on Tuesday so no one could come or go.
At least four strikes hit in close succession in a straight line across the school compound, indicating artillery fire, according to people who saw the attack. The drop ceiling of one classroom had collapsed, and the tin roof was peppered with shrapnel holes. The ground was covered with rubble, clothing and pools of blood.
At the nearby Kamal Adwan hospital, Saeed Adham stood over the bed of his 15-year-old son, Rizek, whose right leg had been shattered by shrapnel. An X-ray of Rizek's calf showed bones looking like an archipelago. Mr. Adham said his wife and other children remained at Abu Hussein despite the danger. "We have nowhere but the school," he said.
Mr. Turner said he hoped that United Nations experts, criticized in the two previous instances by Israel and its supporters for having given rockets found in two schools to Gaza-based security officials, would be able to dispose of the rockets found in the third school.
Ben Hubbard reported from Jabaliya, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem. Fares Akram contributed reporting from Jabaliya, and Somini Sengupta from the United Nations.