The IDF has released a series of maps and images depicting incidents where Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters allegedly fired from near (or, in one case, within) UNRWA facilities. According to the accompanying graph, this has occurred some 30 times during the conflict. It is not clear from the IDF presentation what the criteria for proximate fire is—much of urban Gaza, after all, is within 200m of some school or clinic—but the maps certainly show a few cases were launches were adjacent. These firings would represent a very small proportion (about 0.9%) of all rockets fired from Gaza during the conflict.

HamasUNRWA

There has been no suggestion from the IDF that the UN has willingly permitted such actions. UNRWA has no ability to stop what armed groups may do near its buildings or in unoccupied facilities.

During this same period, at least 44 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire at or near UN shelters. To date, nine UNRWA staff have also been killed during the fighting

Contrary to belief in some quarters, firing from and to civilian areas is permitted during combat under international humanitarian law. Indeed, it is characteristic of virtually all urban warfare. However, combatants are not supposed to do so in ways that put civilians at particular risk, and are clearly prohibited from using civilians to shield their activities. Under Article 8.2.b.xxiii of the Statutes of the International Criminal Court, “utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations” constitutes a war crime. Certainly some Hamas and PIJ rocket launches would appear to violate that requirement (quite apart from being a war crime because they are poorly aimed, and fired in the direction of Israeli towns and cities). The ICC currently has no jurisdiction over the occupied Palestinian territory, which would require either a reference by the United Nations Security Council or Palestinian accession to the Court. Israel is not an ICC signatory, nor is it party to the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts.

IHL recognizes that weapons will malfunction and mistakes will be made—warfare, after all, is a chaotic and messy business, in which troops do not always correctly identify targets (evidenced by the frequency with which they fire upon their own side). However commanders are required to take into consideration the precision and reliability of weapons when these are used in proximity to protected persons and sites.

Otherwise protected sites lose their IHL protection when used for military purposes. However, regardless of this, military action in urban areas is always limited by the fundamental requirement that it be discriminate and that the collateral damage inflicted on civilians be proportionate to the military advantage so gained. Firing an artillery barrage in the general vicinity of thousands of civilians and small handful of combatants, for example would likely not meet the IHL requirements for proportionality, nor would attacking a trio of PIJ militants on a motorcycle outside a crowded refugee shelter.

For other PRRN coverage of these issues, see:

Gaza’s mythical bags of UN “terror cement”

Posted: August 9, 2014 by Rex Brynen in factcheck, Gaza, Hamas, Israel
Tags:

One of the common features of politics in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, is the way in which rumour and misinformation are constantly transmitted within incestuous circles of like-minded partisans until they becomes accepted as fact by those who want to believe. In the intelligence community the various elements of this vicious circle of inaccuracy are known as RUMINT (“rumour intelligence”), circular reporting (whereby stories gain apparently credibility as they circulate, ultimately being used to “confirm” their own veracity), and confirmation bias (when analysts prioritize information that fits their own preconceptions).

The refugee issue is no exception. We’ve already seen the case of the booby-trapped UNRWA clinic that turned out to not be an UNRWA clinic at all. Now, courtesy of the never-very-reliable Algemeiner, we have the accusation that bags of  “UNRWA cement” are being found in Hamas “terror tunnels”:

…the UN group also ignored one finding this week, where bags of cement marked UNRWA, the UN arm that manages schools and other institutions in Gaza, inside a terror tunnel.

It has also reported that “Hamas in Gaza is using UNRWA equipment to dig its longest tunnels under Israeli territory.” There is even a photo to prove the accusation (left). These claims have now been repeated on dozens of partisan websites, and circulated even more widely on social media.

Alleged "UNRWA bags of cement found in Gaza terror tunnels." via The Algemeiner, 30 July 2014.

Alleged “UNRWA bags of cement found in Gaza terror tunnels.” via The Algemeiner, 30 July 2014.There is even a photo to prove the accusation (left). This claim has now been repeated on dozens of partisan websites, and circulated even more widely on social media.

The problem, of course, is that the sacks in question are not bags of UN cement, nor did the IDF (who first circulated the picture) ever claim that they were. Rather, they are bags that once contained rice or flour, which someone has reused to carry dirt during tunnel construction. And what about the “UNRWA equipment”? Well, it turns out those are empty bags too.

With almost half the population of Gaza receiving some form supplementary or emergency food from UNRWA and WFP, these kinds of bags are ubiquitous in Gaza. As you might expect in a besieged economy, Gaza is also a place where pretty much everything is recycled.

There have been other efforts to somehow link UNRWA to Hamas tunnels. Some have suggested that the limited amounts of cement sent into Gaza for UN aid projects was diverted by Hamas. This is unlikely, however. Until 2013 up to 90% of Gaza’s cement supply came in from Egypt through smuggling tunnels, with the price dropping as low as $140/ton. Hamas’ requirements for the construction of military fortifications would have been only a small proportion of total imports into Gaza for civilian purposes and would have been easily purchased locally. Indeed, cement for UN projects was probably the least likely to be diverted since its importation and use was controlled and audited—a point apparently lost on critics.

The massive damage caused to Palestinian homes and other civilian infrastructure by Israeli military action during the current conflict will require substantial reconstruction efforts. As UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness has noted:

It will also require cement. And here the picture is now bleaker than ever.

Since 2013, the closure of tunnels by Egypt has made smuggling much more difficult, especially for high-bulk, low-cost items like cement. Israel has been alarmed by Hamas’ effective use of tunnels in the current conflict, and has indicated that it will link future cement supplies via Israel to the disarmament of Hamas. In doing so it will deliberately hold the civilian population hostage to the behaviour of combatants they cannot control. Hamas, for its part, will not voluntarily disarm, thereby also placing its military strategy ahead of the needs of Gaza’s people.

And, throughout all this, the myth of UN “terror cement” will live on in the partisan echo-chambers of the internet.

 

UPDATE – 16 September 2014

In its latest report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (representing the international donor community), the office of the UN Special Coordinator addresses the issue (emphasis added):

41)  The network of physical structures for civilian life in the Gaza Strip was already inadequate before the conflict. There was for example an estimated shortfall of 71,000 housing units and 250 schools. Israeli restrictions on the import of construction material were reintroduced in October 2013 after the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) uncovered a mile-long tunnel from the Gaza Strip into Israel constructed with slabs of concrete.68 After this incident, virtually all construction projects, including UN projects, were suspended – even though materials imported under UN auspices have not been diverted from their exclusively civilian purpose. Subsequently, all but $11.6 million worth of previously approved UN works have resumed. A further $105 million worth of new UN works are awaiting approval by the Israeli authorities. Preliminary assessments of war destruction suggest that 26 schools were totally destroyed, and 223 schools and 11 higher education facilities were damaged, while 75 hospitals, clinics and health centres also suffered damage. In addition, 13 per cent of the housing stock was affected, with 18,000 housing units totally destroyed or severely damaged and 14,000 partially damaged. While temporary housing solutions need to be found for the estimated more than 108,000 internally displaced persons who have been left homeless, reconstruction is the main longer-term priority.69

42)  During the conflict, the IDF uncovered and destroyed an extensive tunnel network extending from the Gaza Strip into several points in Israel, constructed by Hamas with materials smuggled into the Gaza Strip. No party has claimed, and there is no evidence, that materials imported under UN auspices have been diverted from their exclusively civilian purpose. It must also be said that the effort and resources devoted by Hamas to construct this network in order to launch attacks against Israel is unacceptable.

Israel and UNRWA

Posted: August 8, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Israel, UNRWA

 

Palestinian civilians and medics run to safety during an Israeli strike over a UN school in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip early on January 17, 2009 . (AFP)

Palestinian civilians and medics run to safety during an Israeli strike over a UN school in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip early on January 17, 2009 . (AFP)

Every time there is a new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, UNRWA is caught in the middle—both physically and politically. When the Agency criticizes certain Israeli practices—for example, attacks on its facilities— it comes under fire from certain self-appointed Israeli advocacy groups. When it does things Hamas doesn’t like—for example, its human rights curriculum or summer youth activities—it comes under direct and indirect criticism from Hamas-aligned groups too.

We see that again with the current conflict. In the Wall Street Journal, for example, one hysterical op-ed has labelled UNRWA the “handmaiden of Hamas,” calling it “one of the U.N.’s most perverse, destructive creations.”

In this climate of political polarization, where thoughtful commentary is driven out by fear, loathing, and misinformation, the Jewish Daily Forward offers a more thoughtful and nuanced take on the Israeli-UNRWA relationship:

The rumor spread quickly on news websites and social media during the third week of the recent Gaza war: Three Israeli soldiers had been killed when, according to the report, they discovered a booby-trapped Hamas tunnel right under a medical facility run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

It could have been a devastating blow for the already beleaguered international agency, had it been true.

But it was the Israel Defense Forces that stepped in to stop the rumor and deny its veracity. An officer on the ground even called up UNRWA headquarters to alert the agency to the claims and to ensure that its officials were prepared to respond.

That might seem counterintuitive at first sight. UNRWA and the IDF have just gone through the toughest stretch in their relationship. During the days of fighting, Israeli forces broke with international rules and bombed UNRWA buildings time and again, killing dozens of civilians. And caches of Hamas weapons were found in some of the U.N. agency’s facilities, which are supposed to be neutral and demilitarized.

But even at this low point, as each side hurled accusations at the other, Israel and the U.N. continued to nurture their decades-long relationship. UNRWA closely coordinated its work with Israel’s military. And Israel still enjoyed the peace and quiet of knowing that an international agency was taking care of the health care, education and employment needs of many of the Palestinians for which Israel would otherwise be held responsible as Gaza’s ruler under international law.

“I’m sure it does surprise people to learn that we have a good relationship with the Israeli army,” UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness said in an August 1 phone interview from his office in Jerusalem. An Israeli defense official who was not authorized to speak on record agreed, noting that “more often than not, we get along just fine” with the U.N. agency….

UNRWA is in a bind even talking about these things. If it discusses practical cooperation with local authorities in Gaza, certain extreme partisans of Israel attack the organization. If it discusses practical cooperation with Israel, it makes it harder for the Agency to work in the occupied Palestinian territory. The messaging must constantly be recalibrated in a careful balancing act.

However, the truth is that Israel depends on UNRWA to bandage over some of the consequences of both its blockade (which has left around half the Gazan population in need of UN food aid) and military actions (whereby UNRWA can be counted upon to care for those driven from their homes by Israeli bombing). Israel also much prefers that Palestinians go to UNRWA schools (where they get largely the same curriculum used in the West Bank and even Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem) than Hamas-controlled schools (where no neutrality policy prevents classroom propaganda). Unlike others, it can count on UNRWA to prevent the leakage of aid resources into Hamas hands. And, although not widely known, UNRWA provides its entire employee list to Israel and host countries on a regular basis for security vetting.

The result is public discourse that is often out of alignment with Israeli practice. This isn’t helped by the tendency for some Israeli politicians and officials to publicly berate the Agency even as their government works with it as a practical matter. The net result is the sort of paradox seen when Canada, under prodding from advocacy groups, ended support to the Agency in 2009. Far from praising the move, the Israeli government actually lobbied Ottawa to restart funding, and even to expand it.

Attack on UNRWA school in Rafah

Posted: August 3, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Hamas, Israel, UNRWA

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A third UNRWA school and designated emergency shelter in Gaza, this time in the southern city of Rafah, was attacked today.

According to an initial report in the Guardian:

At least seven people have been killed and dozens more wounded after a projectile struck a street outside a school in the city of Rafah, in the south of Gaza.

The school was sheltering more than 3,000 people displaced by fighting in the area. It has been the scene of heavy bombardment by the Israeli military and fierce clashes following the suspected capture by Hamas fighters of an Israeli soldier, later declared killed in action.

At the time of the strike – about 10.50am – dozens of children and adults were clustered around its gates buying biscuits and sweets from stalls set up by locals.

The missile struck the ground eight to 10 metres from the open gates. Witnesses at the scene less than an hour after the explosion claimed it had been fired from one of the many unmanned Israeli drones in the air above Rafah.

United Nations officials in Gaza described a “shelling incident” or an air strike.

It was impossible to determine the exact provenance of the projectile, but it was the third time in 10 days that a UN school had been hit. Earlier this week, Israeli tank shells lstruck a school in the northern town of Jabaliya, killing 16 in an attack denounced by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, as “reprehensible”.

In all, seven UN schools have been attacked during the conflict.

Israeli spokesmen have previously blamed poorly aimed or malfunctioning Hamas mortar fire or rockets for several such incidents.

UN officials now seem to be suggesting that Israel was responsible:

The Washington Post puts the death toll at 10:

 An apparent Israeli airstrike landed outside a United Nations school in southern Gaza on Sunday, killing at least 10 people and injuring more than 30, as Israel said it had withdrawn most of its ground forces but would continue its military operation in the coastal strip.

A spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency said the blast occurred outside the school in the southern border city of Rafah while about 3,000 Palestinians, who had fled their homes and were seeking refuge, were waiting in line for food and other supplies.

“It seems that it was an Israeli airstrike, according to our staff on the ground,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the agency, which is assisting more than 200,000 Palestinian evacuees at 90 schools and other facilities in Gaza. “They shelled near the gate of the school. Multiple people were killed inside and outside the school.” A U.N. employee was among those killed, he said.

Capt. Eytan Buchman, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said the military was investigating the reports and could not comment further on the incident.

Rafah

The UN Secretary-General has strongly condemned the attack, without attributing blame:

 

(Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described a deadly attack on a U.N. school on Sunday as a “moral outrage and a criminal act” and called for those responsible for the “gross violation of international humanitarian law” to be held accountable.

 

In a statement, Ban strongly condemned the shelling of the school in Rafah in southern Gaza that killed at least 10 civilians. The school was sheltering 3,000 displaced persons and Ban said the “Israel Defense Forces have been repeatedly informed of the location of these sites.”

The total number of Gazans current sheltering in UNRWA facilities has reached over a quarter million. Ten UNRWA staff have been killed in the fighting.

UPDATE

It would now appear the IDF conducted an attack against suspected PIJ members as they drove past the crowded school:

If this were a missile strike from a drone, the operator would have certainly known at the time how crowded the immediate areas was with civilians, as well as the likely identity of this location as a school (which is quite distinctive from the air).

The US has issued an unusually strong condemnation of the attack:

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UNRWA has also issued a formal statement:

STATEMENT BY UNRWA COMMISSIONER GENERAL, PIERRE KRÄHENBÜHL, AND DIRECTOR OF UNRWA OPERATIONS IN GAZA, ROBERT TURNER

Gaza

This morning at about 1045 Gaza time there was an Israeli missile strike adjacent to the main gate of the UNRWA Boys’ Prep School ‘A’ in the town of Rafah, in southern Gaza. We believe as many as nine people were killed, including an UNRWA guard, and 27 were injured. Almost three thousand people had registered at the school, one of ninety which we are using as temporary shelters for some 260,000 displaced people across the Gaza strip.

On six occasions since the start of the conflict, UNRWA schools housing the displaced were subject to direct shelling.  This is the first time a strike in the immediate vicinity of one of our premises, of which there have been several, caused fatalities. As in previous incidents, UNRWA had notified the Israeli Army of the location of the school to make sure that it was protected from the violence that has so dramatically affected the entire population of Gaza, displacing a total of at least 475,000 people. For this particular installation we notified the Israeli Army on 33 separate occasions that this school in Rafah was being used to accommodate the displaced, the last time only an hour before the incident.

The incident in Rafah is a further tragic and unacceptable reminder that there is nowhere safe in Gaza for people to take refuge. No one feels secure and given that Gaza is enclosed by a barrier, there is also nowhere safe for them to run. While UNRWA will continue to provide all possible aid and protection to the displaced, we remind the parties that they must respect the sanctity of civilian life, the inviolability of UN property and that they must abide their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and humanitarian workers.

We are painfully aware of how dangerous working in Gaza is. In the last hours before the Rafah incident, confirmation had come through that another UNRWA worker, our eleventh, was killed. Our hearts goes out to their families and loved ones at this terrible time.

We vigorously condemn today’s Israeli strike and find it incomprehensible that such violence has happened again, only four days since we carried out dead and wounded civilians who had sought refuge in a UN installation. We again call on the Israeli authorities immediately to investigate this appalling incident in Rafah. We made two similar calls after the shelling incidents at our schools housing thousands of displaced people in Beit Hanoun and Jabalia, which caused multiple deaths and injuries. We fully expect the result of these three investigations to be transmitted to us.

International law requires that principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack must be taken into account by parties to a conflict to reduce civilian casualties; the frequency of these incidents increases the urgency to find out why this continues to happen and hold accountable those responsible. We echo the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate cease-fire. This is another urgent reminder that the people of Gaza need an end to this violence and a negotiated settlement that addresses so the underlying causes; instead of this being the third war, it must be the last.

Fred Abrahams at Human Rights Watch has suggested the weapon used was a Spike anti-tank missile.

That is possible–the blast is certainly consistent with a HEAT warhead–but it is probably too early to tell. Most versions of the Spike would allow an operator to see the target zone and guide the missile.

Resources on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza

Posted: August 2, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Hamas, Israel, UNRWA

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Since I will be out of the country next week I won’t have an opportunity update the website. However, ongoing information on refugees and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza can be obtained from:

In addition, follow UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness on Twitter.

Neutrality

Posted: July 30, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Hamas, international law, Israel, UNRWA
Tags:

neutrality

UNRWA operates in five different, and very politically-fraught, contexts: an Israeli occupied West Bank (with a local Palestinian Authority); a Hamas-controlled Gaza; a Jordan that is highly sensitive to the demographic politics of the Palestinian presence; Lebanon, where demographic sensitivity is augmented by restrictive government policies and greater insecurity; and a bloody and authoritarian Syria where more than 150,000 people have died in the ongoing civil war. The refugees for whom it provides services have strong Palestinian nationalist views, as naturally do the vast bulk of its (Palestinian) employees. Its funding primarily comes from the West, however. Fully one-quarter of its budget comes from Israel’s greatest ally, the United States.

And, in this context of conflict, tension, and differing perspectives it must remain “neutral.” It comes as no surprise that former UNRWA Commissioner General Filippo Grandi used to characterize the issue of neutrality as the agency’s greatest operational challenge.

During the current war in Gaza, questions have been raised again about the agency’s neutrality. On three occasions, weapons caches have been found in UNRWA schools that were closed for the summer. Additional controversy was generated when UNRWA—a humanitarian organization completely unequipped to deal with potentially lethal explosives—sought have the weapons removed by munitions experts linked not to Hamas but rather to the Palestinian unity government in Ramallah. Who these experts were, and where the rockets ended up, remains unclear, but critics charge they were returned to Hamas. In another case, armed men apparent removed the weapons before they could be dealt with. UNRWA has strongly and vociferously condemned efforts to hide weapons in its facilities, and stepped up its inspection regime:

UNRWA strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible for this flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.

The Agency immediately informed the relevant parties and is pursuing all possible measures for the removal of the objects in order to preserve the safety and security of the school. UNRWA will launch a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident.

UNRWA has reinforced and continues to implement its robust procedures to maintain the neutrality of all its premises, including a strict no-weapons policy and regular inspections of its installations, to ensure they are only used for humanitarian purposes.

Palestinian civilians in Gaza rely on UNRWA to provide humanitarian assistance and shelter. At all times, and especially during escalations of violence, the sanctity and integrity of UN installations must be respected.

The UN is investigating the Agency’s handling of these situations.

It is not clear what else UNRWA could have done. The schools were closed and unstaffed. UNRWA does not have armed guards or a police force, nor could they function in Gaza with one. The UN does not have the capacity in Gaza to handle a complex explosive ordnance disposal task like this. Israel had no capacity to take custody of the rockets, and handing over to weapons to another belligerent would have been just as problematic from a neutrality point-of-view. There was no secure way safely transport the weapons out of Gaza during a war. And given its control on the ground, if Hamas wanted to take custody of the weapons no one was in a position to prevent them. Anyone who thinks there was an easy fix to the situation clearly has little understanding of circumstances on the ground, or is being deliberately obtuse to serve a broader political agenda.

A second and much more serious neutrality issue was raised by Israeli reports today that its troops found a tunnel entrance inside an UNRWA clinic—and that the building itself was booby-trapped and exploded, killing three IDF soldiers.

However, the IDF is now backing off on that original claim, noting that the clinic may not have been a UN facility after all. According to the Times of Israel:

Three IDF soldiers were killed Wednesday morning in Gaza in an explosion at a booby-trapped UNRWA health clinic that housed a tunnel entry shaft, the IDF’s Gaza Division commander, Brig. Gen. Micky Edelstein, said in a briefing.

After describing certain precautionary measures, Edelstein said, “And then we enter with our people, and they [the militants], from the very same terror tunnel, they blow up half the clinic on our troops.”

UNRWA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

However, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the military unit that implements government policies in the Palestinian areas, later said that the clinic in Abu Daka, outside Khan Younis, was last registered as a sensitive location three years ago, “and it hasn’t been since.”

The spokesperson said the site had not been registered then as belonging to UNRWA, leading to speculation that, perhaps, militants stole the sign and tacked it on the door, posting it as a security umbrella under which a tunnel could be dug.

If it was an UNRWA clinic, a detailed investigation and follow-up will be required. If instead the UN logo was misused, UNRWA will undoubtedly protest this abuse too. If Israeli soldiers were confused, the Agency will likely quietly complain to the IDF. If it was a former clinic and an honest mistake by the IDF, these things happen. In any case, the “booby-trapped clinic” story will continue to reverberate on the internet regardless of whether, as now seems likely, it is disproved.

Violations of UNRWA’s neutrality by armed groups in Gaza is actually very rare—indeed, these recent incidents are the only ones to have taken place in the last twenty years or more. Previously, the Agency’s bigger problem was with Israel temporarily misusing UN facilities for military purposes in the West Bank as observation posts or detention centres during the second intifada, something that has happened a dozen or so times.

A broader critique levelled at the organization is that some of its employees may support Hamas or other radical armed groups. In a political environment where Hamas enjoys the support of about one-third of the Palestinian population, it is almost certainly the case that this happens. However the Agency has a strict neutrality policy that prohibits overt politics by employees, who face disciplinary action of dismissal for any such activity. Moreover, the Agency supplies its full employee lists to Israel and other host governments for vetting every year. At no point has Israel ever requested that the Agency take action against a particular employee because of affiliation with a terrorist group. UNRWA’s neutrality policies are frequently audited by donors, and especially by the United States. Usually these find a few areas where they would like the Agency to strengthen efforts, but otherwise are very positive.

For their part, Palestinians sometimes criticize the organization for tilting towards Israel and the United States. There has been unhappiness that UNRWA curriculum doesn’t teach more about Palestinian national history. Hamas has been critical of the Agency’s human rights lessons. It also has strongly opposed the Agency’s periodic summer youth activities, seeing these as a moderate rival to Hamas’ own militant summer camps. (The US, on the other hand, has praised the Agency’s youth activities as an “indispensable counterweight to extremism.”)

The issues raised above are just those with regard to the occupied Palestinian territories too. Issues of neutrality arise in other ways in Jordan, Lebanon, and especially Syria. How, for example, does the Agency manage to protect neutrality when it must necessarily deal with both the Syrian government and opposition armed groups there? Dialogue with one is easily seen by the other as tantamount to treason.

In short, the Agency is in a very difficult position. It has no ability to force actors to observe its neutrality beyond diplomacy and moral suasion. Everyone from donors to host countries to Palestinian groups to Israel would like to use it to further their own respective interests. Given all that, it is clear that it has generally done an excellent job of navigating political shoals and safeguarding neutrality amidst the ongoing challenges posed by conflict, violence, and an unresolved Palestinian refugee problem.

TOPSHOTS-PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-GAZA

The number of Palestinians driven from their homes in Gaza by Israeli military action is now approaching half a million, with some 204,166 of these sheltering in 86 UNRWA shelters. UN facilities have been hit by fire on multiple occasions, and there have been two attacks that caused substantial loss of life, at schools in Beit Hanoun (where 16 died) and Jabliya (where up to 20 have died during apparent Israeli shelling).

UNRWA and other UN staff have been working selflessly to provide shelter, food, and medical attention, inform the world, and raise desperately-needed resources, not only for Gaza but also for the ongoing crisis in Syria, and serious conditions in other areas of operations. While doing so, five six UN staff have been killed in various incidents in recent days.

The video clip below is of UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness, who has been tireless in his efforts to convey the horror of what has been happening. He is finally overcome with emotion at it all (0:20 onwards), while in an interview with al-Jazeera .

PRRN would like to thank all of those humanitarian workers, at UNRWA and elsewhere, doing their very best at the very worst of times

Attack on UNRWA school in Jabaliya

Posted: July 30, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Israel, UNRWA

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This report will be updated as additional information becomes available.

Another UN school has been shelled in Gaza, this time in Jebalya refugee camp. According to the BBC’s Jon Donnison:

Additional details from an early Reuters report:

Israeli tank shells and air strikes on houses and a school in Jebalya in northern Gaza killed at least 43 people and wounded many others.

A Palestinian health official says 13 people were killed after tank shells hit a UN school in Gaza where hundreds of Palestinians had taken refuge from Israeli attacks.

Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said another 90 Palestinians were wounded in the shelling early Wednesday.

Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for a UN aid agency, says tank shells hit the Abu Hussein UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp around 4:30 a.m.

An AP reporter who arrived later at the school saw what appeared to be tank shells in a bathroom and two classrooms. In another classroom, the strike had blown out the front wall.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said she was checking for details.

Further details from al-Jazeera:

Israeli shelling on a UN school being used as a shelter in the Gaza Strip has killed 23 people and injured scores of others, Palestinian medics says.

Wednesday’s shelling hit the school in Jabaliya refugee camp, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said, on the 23rd day of Israel’s military campaign against the Palestinian coastal enclave.

An official for the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, told the AFP news agency that the strike hit a bathroom and two classrooms inside the girls’ school.

Al Jazeera’s Imtiaz Tyab, reporting from Gaza’s Kamal Adwan hospital, where scores of injured were taken, said there were more than 90 injured.

“Looking around me I can see some with have what appears to be shrapnel wounds and some with far more serious wounds,” he said.

He said people there did not know why Israel had hit the shelter, adding that the attack caused panic among people living in different UN-run shelters.

“As we were driving to the hospital, we saw families with many children leaving other UN schools. They feel insecure. There seem to be no safe shelter for them, not even in UN schools,” our correspondent said.

Almost 15,000 Palestinians were seeking shelter in 83 UNRWA schools, according to UN refugee agency.

The army had begun heavy tank shelling in the area a couple of hours prior to the incident.

The shelling brought Wednesday morning’s death toll to at least 35, in a conflict that has killed more than 1,263 Palestinians, according to Qudra’s figures.

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UPDATE

The UNRWA Commission General has now issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the attack:

30 July 2014

STATEMENT BY UNRWA COMMISSIONER-GENERAL PIERRE KRÄHENBÜH

Jerusalem

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. 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. We have analysed 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. We believe there were at least three impacts. It is too early to give a confirmed official death toll. But we know that there were multiple civilian deaths and injuries   including of women and children and the UNRWA guard who was trying to protect the site.  These are people who were instructed to leave their homes by the Israeli army.

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.

I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces.

This is the sixth time that one of our schools has been struck. Our staff, the very people leading the humanitarian response are being killed.  Our shelters are overflowing. Tens of thousands may soon be stranded in the streets of Gaza, without food, water and shelter if attacks on these areas continue.

We have moved beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone. We are in the realm of accountability. I call on the international community to take deliberate international political action to put an immediate end to the continuing carnage.

 In the meantime, the IDF has asserted Palestinian militants operating near (although not at) the school. According to the Jerusalem Post:

The Israeli military, in an initial response to the killing of at least 19 Palestinians in a United Nations-run school in Gaza on Wednesday, said militants near the facility had fired mortar bombs and Israeli forces had shot back.

“Earlier this morning, militants fired mortar shells at (Israeli) soldiers from the vicinity of the UNRWA school in Jabaliya (refugee camp). In response, soldiers fired towards the origins of fire, and we’re still reviewing the incident,” a military spokeswoman said.

It might be noted, of course, that a very large proportion of urban Gaza is “in the vicinity” of a school, hospital, or clinic.

In an interview with al-Jazeera, UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness breaks down in tears as he discusses the impact of the conflict on Palestinian children.

In the meantime, UNRWA has pointed to Israeli 155mm artillery as the culprit:

Hamas has no artillery of this sort whatsoever.

 

UPDATE July 31

The following video comments by the UNRWA Commissioner General on the school shelling, and the general condition of Palestinians in Gaza, has now been uploaded to YouTube:

Also, the White House has issued a statement condemning the attack. It is notable both for the strong language used, and the clear identification of Israel as the culprit. As the BBC reports (emphasis added):

“There is a difference in approach between what Hamas is perpetrating on the Israeli people and what Israel is doing to defend their country,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

“But the shelling of a UN facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible, and it is clear that we need our allies in Israel to do more to live up to high standards that they have set for themselves.”

He was referring to an incident on Wednesday, when at least 16 people were killed when shellfire hit a UN-run school designated as a civilian shelter in the Jabaliya district of Gaza City.

Mr Earnest said there was little doubt that the shells were fired by the Israeli military.

 

UPDATE August 4

The New York Times has an excellent analysis of the attack, highlighting that the school was indeed hit by Israeli artillery—an inherently indiscriminate weapon when used in an urban area:

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.

Updates on Gaza conflict, 29 July 2014

Posted: July 29, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Hamas, Israel, UNRWA

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UNRWA provides a daily emergency situation report on the conflict in Gaza and its humanitarian impact, available on the UNRWA website.

In addition, both UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krähenbühl and UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness provide additional updates via Twitter:

As in other crises, UNOSAT is provided overhead imagery to support UN and other humanitarian activities in Gaza. The latest UNOSAT imagery of Gaza can be found here.

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The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs provides daily updates on the situation in Gaza. These are available here.

In addition, check out UN OCHA’s ReliefWeb page for information from both UN and other sources on the Gaza crisis.

UNRWA Gaza situation report, 28 July 2014

Posted: July 28, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Israel, UNRWA

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The latest UNRWA Gaza situation report for 28 July 2014 can be found here. In addition see also the UN OCHA emergency situation report, from which the map above and data below are drawn.

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With Israel having announced the continuation of military operations—including a stepped-up bombardment overnight, and orders to communities east of the Salah Eddin Road (almost half of all Gaza) to evacuate—deaths will undoubtedly increase and humanitarian conditions grow ever worse in the coming days.