Shelling of the UNRWA school at Beit Hanoun: a preliminary analysis

Posted: July 24, 2014 by Rex Brynen in Gaza, Hamas, Israel, UNRWA

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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.

 

UPDATE (11/9/2014)

Human Rights Watch has published the results of an investigation into this and other attacks against UNRWA schools in Gaza. They conclude that the school was struck by two medium or heavy mortar rounds, with the flat-trajectory damage described above apparently having happened after the school had been evacuated.

Comments
  1. James Lindsay says:

    Based on the description of the facts, the conclusion, that is was most likely Israeli mortar fire, seems reasonable. However, the argument is weakened by the reference to “a previous attack against the Al-Fakhura School in Jabalia Camp in Gaza in 2009.” There is no evidence at all that this year’s event was an “attack” (and the 2009 event was not “an attack on a school,” as the link makes clear). Yes, it is possible, maybe even likely, that the rounds were Israeli, but it is extremely unlikely that the Israelis would “attack” an URWA school which was not taking part in the ongoing battle. They have nothing to gain and much to lose from such an attack. Mistakes are made in all battles.

    It is always useful to compare the IDF’s mistakes with the Palestinian’s admitted intention of killing Israeli civilians, as they fire unguided rockets at population centers in Israel. Mistakes (unless grossly negligent — a very difficult standard to meet in a war situation at the fighting level), regardless of the result, are not war crimes. Intentionally targeting civilians is ALWAYS a war crime and the operatives and leaders of Hamas, PIJ and the like are all war criminals and should all be indicted. Israeli actions should also be subject to a war crimes analysis, but the investigation required is difficult and much less likely to reach a clear conclusion. With the Palestinians, there is no question but that they are committing war crimes.

    • Rex Brynen says:

      James, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I do, however, think you are splitting semantic hairs on the 2009 al-Fakhura attack–and I also think your hair-splitting is mistaken. Just as the downing of flight MH17 by Ukrainian rebels is quite rightly referred to as an “attack” (even though the rebels clearly thought they were engaging another, military, type of aircraft), so too al-Fakhura is an “attack” even if the mortar crew didn’t know or didn’t care a school was located at those coordinates.

      On the issue of war crimes, I absolutely agree that all firing rockets at civilian areas is a violation of IHL and the LoaC, a point I’ve made in other places. I accept that many IDF operations in Gaza fall within IHL/LoaC, although I think the ratio of 3 civilian casualties for every casualty inflicted on an enemy combatant raises troublesome questions about proportionality–it would not, for example, have been considered a tolerable cost of doing business for NATO operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. More broadly than the current military operation, I think aspects of Israel’s closure policy on Gaza are legally dubious, and it is amply clear that settlement activity in the West Bank is a gross violation of IHL.

      Given that, and the importance of upholding IHL, one hopes that Palestine will eventually decide to join the International Criminal Court. I think you would agree that such an action would almost certainly bring about ICC indictments of Hamas and PIJ (for rocket firing), possibly some members of the IDF for actions in Gaza, and almost certainly some members of the Israeli government for settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory.

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