For the second time in as many weeks, a United Nations-run school in the Gaza Strip was hit with artillery fire, with reports that as many 90 Palestinians were wounded in the attack that killed an estimated 19 people.
The shelling that struck in Jabaliya landed around 5 a.m. early Wednesday morning, reportedly falling in rapid succession. Around 3,300 Palestinians had been using the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) school for shelter from the Israeli campaign to root out Hamas and other militant groups in the strip when the explosions began. “One hit the street in front of the entrance, according to several witnesses,” the New York Times reported. “Two others hit classrooms where people were sleeping.”
Israel has long insisted that Hamas has used the civilian population in the densely populated Gaza Strip as human shields, firing rockets from neighboring locations in order to draw Israeli fire. “They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told CNN. “They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.” The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said on Wednesday that they were firing in response to fire from in the vicinity of the Abu Hussein School, but did not immediately take responsibility for the shelling.
Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, issued a statement strongly condemning the shelling, noting that this was at least the sixth time a UNRWA school had been struck. “Last night, children were killed as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom in a UN-designated shelter in Gaza,” he said. “Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”
“We have visited the site and gathered evidence,” Krähenbühl continued, declaring that UNRWA’s “initial assessment is that it was Israeli artillery that hit our school.” Krähenbühl noted that the “precise location of the Jabalia Elementary Girls School and the fact that it was housing thousands of internally displaced people was communicated to the Israeli army seventeen times, to ensure its protection; the last being at ten to nine last night, just hours before the fatal shelling.”
Chris Gunness, the UNRWA humanitarian coordinator, added on Twitter that “UNRWA condemns in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces.”
Last week, another U.N.-run school was struck with shelling, in a situation that has prompted differing versions of events between the United Nations and Red Cross on one side and Israel on the other. The U.N. school in Beit Hanoun was playing host to hundreds of Palestinians told to leave their homes in advance of Israel’s expanding operation in Gaza. Robert Turner, director of the U.N.’s refugee agency in Gaza, told Sheera Frenkel of Buzzfeed that the day of the attack at least “12 separate phone calls were made to the IDF to request a humanitarian window to evacuate civilians.”
No such window was organized, he said, and the attack that followed killed at least 15 people. The IDF agrees on the number killed, but first suggested it was a misfired Hamas rocket that landed in the school’s courtyard. Later, they admit that at least one Israeli shell had hit the school, but insisted that satellite footage showed no casualties.
The Israeli military on Wednesday afternoon announced that it would be initiating a “humanitarian pause” of four hours to allow aid to enter Gaza. That aid is sorely needed, particularly as much of the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip has been taken out in the Israeli assault, which has shrunk the territory by roughly forty percent as a “no-man’s land” is instituted in a 3 kilometer buffer zone between the residents and Israel. Gazans have been reduced to using roughly two hours of electricity per day as a strike yesterday took out Gaza’s only power plant.
Meanwhile, the death toll continues to escalate, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA). So far in the three week war, 1,118 Palestinians have been killed — including “at least 827 civilians, of whom 243 are children and 131 are women” — and 56 Israelis. More than 240,000 Palestinians are currently displaced, or more than ten percent of the Gaza Strip’s population of 1.8 million. “UNRWA has exhausted its absorption capacity in Gaza City and northern Gaza, while overcrowding at its shelters raises concerns about the outbreak of epidemics,” OCHA wrote.