Neutrality

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

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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.

The BBC’s John Donnison has released the audio of an interview today with IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner regarding the attack on the UN school in Beit Hanoun on July 24. You’ll find the audio here—listen to it.

The interview is striking in several respects:

  • Lerner almost entirely focuses on a single mortar strike in the then-empty courtyard of the school. He is unable to explain why the video isn’t longer, or time-stamped, nor does he address why no video has been presented showing the casualties and evacuation.
  • He acknowledges the school might have also been hit in other crossfire, but it is clear from his comments and previous statements that the IDF has offered no real investigation of the school being hit at other times by other weapons, or addressed evidence of heavier calibre hits (possibly direct fire from tanks, as refugees reported) on the north face of the building.
  • Stunningly, he suggests that—despite scores of eyewitness reports, not to mention the bloody evidence at the school itself—that no one was injured there the school at all, and that instead the casualties were all brought in from elsewhere.

Who exactly shot what, where, and when does remain murky, as we’ve discussed in detail in our ongoing analysis of the incident here at PRRN. However, for Lerner to suggest that no one was actually injured at the school at all is simply mind-numbingly irresponsible.

Lerner has apparently suggested something similar to CNN:

UNRWA Gaza situation report, 26 July 2014

Posted: July 26, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Israel, UNRWA

UNRWA has issued the following emergency update on the situation in Gaza, as of the morning of 26 July 2014:

 

26 July 2014 | Issue No. 18

On 7 July UNRWA declared an emergency in all five areas of the Gaza Strip in response to escalating violence between Israel and Hamas. Since then, civilian displacement and fatalities have risen sharply. According to the Protection Cluster, 68 Palestinians have been reported killed during this period, including 10 women and 13 children. The total number of Palestinian deaths reported by the Protection Cluster currently stands at 907 and the number of wounded, as reported by the Ministry of Health has reached 5,860. The number of displaced people is now more than triple the peak number from the 2008/9 conflict, and exceeds 162,862 in 83 schools. UNRWA has launched an emergency flash appeal for US$ 115 million to respond to the urgent and pressing humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.


GENERAL

Past 24 hours: Numbers of Internally Displaced people (IDPs) in UNRWA shelters continue to increase, now exceeding 162,862. In addition, an estimated 20,000 IDPs are reported to be sheltering with relatives and in public schools, mosques, churches, unfinished buildings and open areas. After more than two weeks of escalating conflict, some areas are reporting that families hosting IDPs in their homes are no longer able to support displaced family members, leading to some increase in numbers seeking refuge in UNRWA shelters. Besides providing food and essential non- food items in its shelters, UNRWA is also making efforts to address other needs of displaced people. Psychosocial counselors are in place in shelters to support people, especially children, in coping with their experiences of fear and loss. In Rafah, a group of four volunteer barbers is visiting UNRWA shelters to offer haircuts, helping to bring some sense of normalcy amid the trauma of displacement.

Babies continue to be born to women staying in UNRWA shelters, with mother and child then returning to the difficult circumstances in shelters, in the absence of any other safe place in Gaza. These women have expressed their wish for an end to the conflict and to be able to return to their homes. UNFPA has expressed concern about the impact of the conflict on women’s health and their access to safe births, with an estimated 45,000 women pregnant women in Gaza in need of maternity care and an estimated 5,000 of these displaced by the current conflict. OCHA reports a rise in the numbers of child mortalities, miscarriages and premature births among pregnant women.  Access to maternal health services is increasingly limited in the face of attacks against health facilities and increased pressure on services. Overnight, there were reports of heavy shelling at Beit Hanoun hospital, and it has been reported that six out of thirteen hospitals in Gaza have now been severely damaged during this conflict. In addition, WHO has previously reported critical concerns with hospital supplies due to large numbers of casualties and serious shortages even before the current conflict.

One of the most serious concerns in UNRWA shelters remains that of access to water. During this period, UNRWA continued to install additional tanks in schools being used as shelters, in order to improve storage capacity. However, delivery of water across the Gaza Strip remains a challenge due to limited capacity. UNRWA is also continuing to put in place a system of shelter focal points to monitor water quality and safe usage, in an effort to minimize the risk of water- borne diseases. With many UNRWA shelters housing more than 2000 people, maintaining standards of hygiene is of particular importance in order to avoid major public health concerns.

Overnight, parties to the conflict agreed to the implementation of a twelve hour humanitarian pause, starting from 08.00 local time. UNRWA hopes that this pause will be upheld in order to allow the Agency to provide much needed humanitarian assistance to previously unreachable areas. While regular food distribution and sanitation services were not provided during this period due to it being a Friday, high levels of insecurity and an expanded 3km Israeli- imposed ‘buffer zone’ have been preventing solid waste removal in Maghazi and Bureij; access to an UNRWA warehouse containing vital food and NFI supplies in the north of the Gaza Strip; access to two NFI stores; operation of four centers for regular distribution of emergency food; and provision of water to a shelter in Maghazi. Humanitarian pauses are essential for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and repair of vital infrastructure as well as to complete search and rescue operations, but efforts to negotiate such pauses have been largely unsuccessful to date.

UNRWA RESPONSE

  • UNRWA is now providing shelter to more than 162,862 beneficiaries in all five areas of the Gaza Strip. There are currently 83 designated emergency shelters. The priority continues to be the provision of food, water, sleeping, hygiene and cleaning items.
  • During this period, UNRWA delivered 38 truckloads of NFIs to shelters (including mattresses, blankets, sleeping mats, hygiene kits and cleaning supplies); 76 truckloads of food and 70,000Lt of non- potable water.
  • Sanitation services continued on a reduced basis during this period due to it being a Friday. 171 sanitation workers reported on duty, removing an estimated 148 tonnes of solid waste.
  • Regular health services and food distribution did not occur during this period due it being a Friday.

SUMMARY OF MAJOR INCIDENTS

Reportedly there were 80 rockets and 28 mortar shells fired towards Israel. There were also reports that 98 missiles were fired into Gaza in addition to 90 navy shells and 989 tank shells. Reportedly, 35 houses were bombardedd.

UNRWA INSTALLATIONS

A total of 93 UNRWA installations have been damaged since 1 June, 2014, many of them on multiple occasions.

In the past 24 hours, one UNRWA School was damaged.

 FUNDING NEEDS

UNRWA has launched an emergency flash appeal for US$ 115 million to provide emergency assistance to 150,000 people through its shelters- where food, NFI and psychosocial support are provided- and through health and social service facilities available to those not taking refuge in UNRWA shelters. This funding will also allow UNRWA to start early recovery activities once hostilities cease.

More information on the appeal can be found here.

CROSSINGS

  • Rafah crossing was open for foreign passport holders and wounded Palestinians
  • Erez was closed.
  • Kerem Shalom crossing was open for food and fuel.

 

In addition, UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness has continued to provide further information on Twitter:

 

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This is a preliminary report, and will be updated as more information becomes available.

Today an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun acting as a shelter for Palestinians fleeing the fighting in northern Gaza was hit by several shells, killing at least 16 people and wounded dozens more. You’ll find an excellent video report on the incident by NBC’s Richard Engel here. Earlier BBC reporting on the attack can be found here.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbül issued a statement on the attack:

Jerusalem

The scenes of carnage and human suffering that we witnessed today at our elementary school in Beit Hanoun were so appalling and intolerable, that it is difficult to find the words to convey adequately my indignation. As has happened so many times in this pitiless conflict, civilians are paying the highest price of the current military escalation. I condemn this callous shelling and the extensive loss of life in the strongest possible terms and call for an immediate investigation to ensure that circumstances and responsibilities are comprehensively and irrefutably established.

At approximately 14:55 today, as hostilities were intensifying, UNRWA’s Beit Hanoun Elementary Co-Ed A and D school compound was struck by explosive projectiles, causing death and injuries to multiple displaced Palestinian civilians who had sought refuge in this UN installation. This school had been designated as an UNRWA Emergency Shelter.

The security situation in the Beit Hanoun area was deteriorating rapidly and over the course of the day UNRWA had been attempting to negotiate with the Israeli Defence Forces a pause in the fighting during which they would guarantee a safe corridor to relocate staff and any displaced persons who chose to evacuate to a more secure location. Approval for that never came to UNRWA. In addition, the school’s coordinates had been formally conveyed to the Israeli authorities on 12 occasions, most recently at 10:56 this morning.

These Palestinians, many of them women and children had come to this school for refuge believing that a UN installation would offer them a higher level of safety and security having been displaced from their homes as a result of the current fighting. That belief was based on the binding commitment of the international community and on the binding obligation of parties to the conflict under international law to respect the inviolability and sanctity of UN premises, and on the many years during which UNRWA has done its utmost to provide them protection.

This is the fourth time in the past four days that an UNRWA school has been struck by explosive projectiles. Today’s tragedy was yet another illustration that no one in Gaza is safe. I call once again on all parties to this conflict to recognize and respect the sanctity, neutrality and inviolability of UN premises. I further call for an immediate cease-fire to end the killing and maiming as well as the devastation and traumas that will mark the population for decades. Enough is enough.

Israel initially implied that the attack might have been the result of errant Hamas rocket fire falling short.

It also suggested that Hamas had fired from the immediate area, and that the IDF had returned fire.

The IDF insisted that it had requested that the school be evacuated, but that Hamas had prevented this:

However, UNRWA denied that an evacuation had been coordinated with the IDF, and stressed that it had repeatedly told the IDF of the school’s location and status as a refugee centre:

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Reports of the incident suggest there were several explosions in close proximity and relatively quick succession, which is not consistent with errant rocket fire (Given the crude design of local rockets and the ways in which they are usually fired, these would not be expected to cluster so closely.)

Other reports suggested an Israeli tank had fired on the location. However, at least one image of the site is not consistent with fire from a tank main gun either. As can be seen in the image below, the blast pattern is relatively circular, suggesting a high-trajectory weapon such as an infantry mortar, or possibly a projectile fired from a grenade launcher at high angle. This is also consistent with the reported rate of fire. The blast is also much smaller than one would expect from 155mm or similar indirect artillery fire.

A crater marks the centre of a courtyard at a United Nations-run school sheltering Palestinians displaced by an Israeli ground offensive in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip

Moreover, the radius of damage to the pavement is relatively small, suggesting a relatively small calibre weapon. Images from other conflicts (see below) suggest that the damage appears most consistent with a light or medium mortar. Several military analysts consulted by PRRN came to similar conclusions based on the picture above. At present, pictures are not available that clearly show the other weapon impacts on the school.

Blast damage from insurgent 60mm mortar used against US base in Iraq.

Blast damage from insurgent light mortar used against a US base in Iraq.

Mortar munitions are designed to fragment to maximize the spread of shrapnel, and often leave little behind other than the small tail assembly. Locally-made rockets tend to leave the much large rocket casing partially intact, and are therefore quickly identified. Some reporters who visited the scene have commented on the absence of a rocket casing. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the shrapnel removed from bodies is more consistent with that from mortars,  rather than that from locally-made Palestinian rockets.

While Hamas is known to field some mortars, the IDF deploys much larger numbers of these, and has been using them much more frequently. 60mm mortars are both deployed with Israeli infantry units and integrated into many Israeli armoured fighting vehicles. Depending on configuration, these have a typical range of around 1,600m. IDF troops were certainly active well within this area.

In later interviews IDF spokespersons have admitted to the possibility that Israeli mortar rounds may have hit the school.

In a previous attack against the Al-Fakhura school in Jabalia Camp in Gaza in January 2009 an Israeli mortar shell was found to be responsible. Some 42 people were killed in that incident.

UPDATE (25/7/2014)

UNRWA has denied reports circulating online that it had claimed outgoing rocket fire in area of school:

An UN team, including a munitions expert, sought to visit the school to investigate what happened there. They were unable to complete their investigation due to fighting in the area, however:

Finally, UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness also reminds us how serious the problem of forced displacement has become in Gaza:

 

UPDATE (26/7/2014)

It appears that UN was unable to get an investigation team to Beit Hanoun school again today. As time passes, and if the now-evacuated school buildings find themselves in the middle of continued fighting (with attendant damage and munitions remnants), it may become somewhat harder to determine the origins of the attack.

Reports from those at the school at the time of the attack suggest five blasts in close succession and close proximity.

 

UPDATE (27/7/2014)

In a detailed article in the Daily Beast, Jesse Rosenfled—who visited the scene—reports much great damage from shells that impacted two upper-floor classrooms:

The two most deadly blasts hit classrooms on the second and third floor of the school and even days later the sulphur smell of explosives still hangs in the air. The rooms are blackened and charred; light pours in through shattered windows and shell holes in the walls. Desks are piled neatly in the corner where they’d been moved to make more room for people seeking shelter. Broken glass crunches under my feet as I walk through the school. In some rooms the floor is caked with dry blood.

The damage in this case (notably the shell holes in the wall) seems to be more consistent with direct fire from a tank. A medium mortar might do the same, although it would be less likely to strike the side of a building given its high parabolic trajectory.

If anyone has or has seen pictures of this damage, I would be grateful if they would pass them on.

Meanwhile, the Haaretz reports IDF claims that the school was fired upon by Israeli forces, but that the school courtyard was empty at the time:

An Israel Defense Forces investigation into the strike on a United Nations-run school in the Gaza Strip has revealed that the courtyard was struck by an Israeli mortar, but was empty of people at the time – thus undermining claims that at least 15 Palestinians were killed in the strike.

According to Palestinian reports, the courtyard of a UNRWA school in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun was hit on Thursday whilst it was full of refugee families, leaving at least 15 dead – mostly women and children. Soon after the incident, the IDF said it was unclear whether Israeli or Hamas shelling caused the strike, since both sides had exchanged fire in the area at the time.

The IDF released the findings of its investigation into the incident on Sunday morning. According to the inquiry, Palestinian militants opened fire from the area of the school, shooting morters and antitank missiles at Israeli forces. In response, the investigation reveals, the IDF decided to return fire with mortars.

Given the absolutely certainty (multiple eyewitnesses, blood on the scene) that people were at the school when it was shelled, this leaves several possibilities:

  • The mortar hit in the courtyard is different from the fire that hit the other parts of the school, perhaps striking later. This would be consistent with the suggestion above that the school building itself was hit by heavier, flatter trajectory weapons.
  • The courtyard was empty when hit, but other areas weren’t.
  • The IDF thought the area was clear, but it wasn’t.

The IDF has issued a statement on the issue, as well as a video showing the detonation of a single mortar round at the school (apparently, the crater correctly identified by PRRN in the analysis above). No individuals appear to be present at this time, suggesting it was either much before—or, more likely, much after the initial incident. No time stamp is provided for the video, although the IDF must have this data.

Since Thursday, July 24, 2014, the IDF has conducted a comprehensive inquiry regarding the incident in which the UNRWA school was fired upon. The inquiry concluded that during the intense fighting between IDF forces and Hamas militants, the militants operated adjacent to the UNRWA school. The militants fired anti-tank missiles at IDF soldiers, who then responded by firing several mortars in their direction.

The inquiry and the documented footage presented here concluded that a single errant mortar landed in the courtyard of the UNRWA school, when it was completely empty. To download the video, right-click here and “save as”.

The IDF stresses it does not operate or target international organizations in the Gaza Strip, and the ongoing coordination conducted via the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) is continuous without change, even during times of combat.

In light of the inquiry’s findings, the IDF rejects the claims that were made by various officials immediately following the incident, that people were killed in the school premises as a result of IDF operational activity.

It is not clear why the IDF does not have, or has not released, UAV coverage of the original attack, or the very large amount of subsequent activity it caused (vehicles ferrying the dead and wounded, for example).

 

UPDATE (28/7/2014)

IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner has given this astonishing interview with the BBC, in which he suggests that no one was hurt at the school, and that the wounded and dead were brought there later.

Reporter Jesse Rosenfeld—who visited the school—has provided PRRN with the following additional information on the damage to the classrooms:

The rooms faced towards Erez and the shelling clearly came from that direction. One of the rooms was still smouldering two days on….

There were plenty of signs of panic that indicated the court yard wasn’t empty when the shells fell. Also there were two separate impact sites. As for the rooms, the impact from the shells seemed heaviest at the back, and a shell size hole punched through the side wall into the stairwell.

If the building was indeed struck from the north (or east) that would largely rule out errant Palestinian rocket fire. It also makes it more likely the fire, whatever the type, was from IDF sources given the apparent deployment of combatants in the area. A shell that had passed through the outer wall to impact an inside wall is consistent with tank (or artillery) fire, not mortars.

Hamas, UNRWA, and the shelter issue

Posted: July 23, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Hamas, Israel, UNRWA

Today the Israeli Defence Forces tweeted that Hamas had called upon UNRWA to refrain from opening up shelters for those Gazans fleeing the current fighting:

thumb.phpIn fact, the statement (here, in Arabic) from the Hamas Department of Refugee Affairs is a little more nuanced that. First, it certainly does discourage Palestinians from leaving their homes:

We call on our people in the border areas of to be steadfast and not to leave their areas, because that is part of the psychological warfare practiced by the enemy. There must be no success for the aggressive policy of occupation, as happened in the Nakba in 1948.

The statement does not exactly forbid UNRWA from opening shelters, however, but rather asks that this only be done in coordination with the popular committees in the camps and the Ministry of the Interior. It warns that UNRWA should open facilities where the safety of these from israeli attack can be assured:

We call on UNRWA to not open shelters or open schools as evacuation centers without coordination with the popular refugee committees and the Interior Ministry and concerned authorities. UNRWA holds full responsibility for the safety of displaced persons sheltering them, for we still recall the massacre Fakhurah in the War of 2009, where UNRWA did not protect its school nor did the occupation [Israel] bear results of its crime. It also did not protect the UNRWA headquarters, which Israel bombed repeatedly.

An IDF mortar attack against the area of the Fakhurah school in 2009 killed some forty persons.

The statement also calls upon the Hamas administration to encourage steadfastness and discourage flight:

We call on the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs to redouble their efforts to stabilize families in their homes and neighbourhoods and towns, and to disseminate reassurance to them throughout the day and night, and to raise the level of steadfastness and sacrifice. They must warn them of the consequences of displacement and remind them of the painful experiences of [past] asylum and displacement.

Net verdict: Hamas is discouraging refugees from relocating to shelters, and would clearly like to discourage UNRWA from opening additional shelters without Hamas approval (although it is taking no actual active measures to prevent UNRWA from doing so). The reasons for Hamas policy are not clear from the statement itself. Certainly there is a concern with being once more displaced by Israel—after all, the vast majority of the population of Gaza are those whose families were ethnically cleansed in 1948 and driven into exile. There may also be some concern, as expressed in the statement, with the coordination of policy.

However, it is also likely that Hamas finds political and military advantage in the presence of large civilian populations in dense urban areas, hoping that this constrains Israeli actions. Conversely, the flight of civilians in these areas would certainly work to the IDF’s tactical and political advantage—precisely why it has encouraged the local population to flee.

Where they are supposed to go, of course, isn’t always clear. Given the scope of Israeli attacks and the high proportion of civilian casualties—over 70% by UN estimate—there are are no truly safe places in Gaza to which anyone can flee.

UNRWA Gaza situation report, 22 July 2014

Posted: July 22, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Israel, UNRWA

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UNRWA’s Gaza situation report for 22 July 2014:

On 7 July, UNRWA declared an emergency in all five areas of the Gaza Strip in response to escalating violence between Israel and Hamas. Since then, civilian displacement and fatalities have risen sharply. The total number of Palestinian deaths currently stands at 582. The number of displaced into UNRWA schools is now double the peak number from the 2008/9 conflict, and now exceeds 102,000 in 68 schools. UNRWA has already had to revise its emergency flash appeal to US$ 115 million to respond to the dramatically increased humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.


GENERAL

Past 24 hours: Serious concerns were raised over the past 24 hours regarding respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL). UNRWA strongly condemns an attack on an UNRWA school in Maghazi sheltering approximately 1,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and operating as a designated emergency shelter. The shelter was struck by explosive ordnance believed to have been fired by Israel, which injured one IDP. Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir El Baleh was also reportedly shelled, killing five people, including two doctors, and wounding at least 70. These incidents represent distinct breaches of IHL and come as the international community is increasingly expressing concern with the high numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza. UNRWA reiterates calls made by the international community for full respect for IHL, including full respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack during the conduct of hostilities.

The number of Palestinians killed in the conflict passed 500 today. In the past 24- hour period, 107 Palestinians were killed, including 22 women and 22 children. Devastatingly, the bodies of 12 members of one family, all children, were removed from the rubble of a building in Bani Suhaila, Khan Younis on 21 July. At least 3,720 Palestinians were injured during this 24-hour period. Nine Israeli soldiers were reportedly killed during this period, with international media reporting that the Israeli death toll currently stands at 29, including 2 civilians.

With an ongoing and intensifying ground operation, levels of displacement continue to grow. In the past 24 hours, almost 18,000 additional people sought refuge in UNRWA shelters, bringing the total number of IDPs in UNRWA shelters to 102,788. This figure represents about 6 per cent of Gaza’s total population. As of 22 July, IDPs are being housed in 68 UNRWA shelters, with shelters in Beit Hanoun and Maghzai having been closed and IDPs moved to other shelters during this period due to heavy fighting.

Despite the sharp increase in displacement over the past 24 hours, UNRWA, in partnership with WFP, was able to provide basic food to every IDP who presented themselves at UNRWA shelters. The food basket provided in UNRWA shelters was today diversified to include bread, cans of tuna, canned meat, cream cheese and vegetables. 12 truckloads of Non Food Items (NFIs) were delivered to shelters in this 24-hour period.

While responding to the urgent needs of displaced Gazans, UNRWA has continued its regular operations to the degree that  security has permitted. On 21 July, 13 out of 21 UNRWA Health Centers were open and 6,783 patients presented at UNRWA Health Centers across the Gaza Strip, including 505 children. UNRWA sanitation workers have continued to collect solid waste from UNRWA Camps and shelters. On 21 July, 351 Sanitation Laborers reported to work in all but three areas of the Gaza Strip (Bureij, Maghazi and Deir El Baleh were inaccessible due to heavy fighting and access restrictions); and removed 201 tones of solid waste.

On 21 July, an airlift of urgent humanitarian supplies from International Humanitarian City (IHC) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) landed at Marka International Airport, Jordan. Under the direction of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the airlift included 45,000 mattresses, 10,000 blankets and 220 hygiene kits; and is currently being transported to Gaza. This generous donation is welcomed by UNRWA and will be of great help in providing urgently needed supplies to UNRWA shelters which are under enormous pressure. The IHC has also coordinated for further airlifts of humanitarian supplies to Gaza, including jerry cans, sleeping mats, blankets, tarpaulins, hygiene kits and kitchen sets. As highlighted by UNRWA Commissioner- General, Pierre Krähenbühl, this support “is one of the best examples of how effective humanitarians can be when working together”.

International efforts continue to bring about a peaceful resolution to the current conflict. UN Secretary- General, Ban Ki-Moon, speaking from Cairo on 21 July, stressed once again that “the violence must stop – it must stop now” and described Gaza as “an open wound”. The Secretary- General recognized that “going back to the status quo ante won’t solve the problem; it will defer it for another day”. For a sustainable peace to be maintained, a long term solution is needed to the ongoing conflict in Gaza, which is compounding the devastating effects of years of blockade and isolation of Gaza. UNRWA reiterates calls from the international community both for a cessation in hostilities and an end to the crippling blockade on Gaza.

  UNRWA RESPONSE

  • UNRWA is now providing shelter to more than 102,788 beneficiaries all five areas of the Gaza Strip. There are currently 68 designated emergency shelters, with more expected to open throughout the day. The priority continues to be the provision of food, water, sleeping, hygiene and cleaning items.
  • During this period, food and water rations were distributed to shelters. This includes 15 trucks of NFIs and 40 of food.
  • 40,000 tonnes of diesel were delivered to water and sewage pump stations.
  • Regular UNRWA operations are affected but continue as security permits. 13 of 21 health clinics remain operational, and regular UNRWA services are available. 6,783 people visited UNRWA health clinics on 21 July, including 505 children who had regular check-ups and/or immunizations. In addition, there were 276 visits to the dentist at UNRWA health clinics.
  • Regular sanitation operations continue, with 351 sanitation workers reporting for work in all but 3 areas of the Gaza Strip. Maghazi, Bureij and Deir El Baleh were inaccessible due to heavy fighting and access restrictions.

SUMMARY OF MAJOR INCIDENTS

Reportedly, there were 205 rockets and 51 mortar shells fired towards Israel. There were also reports that 183 missiles were fired into Gaza in addition to 233 navy shells and 963 tank shells. Reportedly, 66 houses were bombarded.

For the first time in this conflict, an UNRWA staff member, a female teacher, has been confirmed to have been killed.

UNRWA INSTALLATIONS

A total of 77 UNRWA installations have been damaged since 1 June 2014.

In the past 24 hours, two UNRWA installations were damaged – one school in Beit Hanoun and one in Maghazi.

FUNDING NEEDS

On 17 July, UNRWA launched an emergency flash appeal for US$ 60 million to respond to the urgent and pressing humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza, including the thousands who have already fled their homes to seek safety in UNRWA facilities. This funding was to enable UNRWA to respond to the immediate shelter, food, health and psychosocial needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs), while replenishing emergency supplies and preparing for vital interventions necessary after a cessation of military activities. The emergency response phase was expected to last for one month, and the early recovery a further three to six months.

Based on the escalating number of IDPs and further destruction of shelters, a revised appeal was released on 22 July, for an additional US$ 55 million.  UNRWA now estimates that US$ 115 million is needed to provide emergency assistance to 150,000 people through its shelters- where food, NFI and psychosocial support are provided- and through health and social service facilities available to those not taking refuge in UNRWA shelters. This funding will also allow UNRWA to start early recovery activities once hostilities cease.

More information on the appeal can be found by here.

CROSSINGS

  • Rafah crossing was open for foreign passport holders and wounded Palestinians.
  • Erez was open only for foreigners and humanitarian medical cases.
  • Kerem Shalom crossing was open for food and fuel.

In addition, see also the UN OCHA Gaza emergency situation report for this day.