Archive for the ‘Hamas’ Category

hrw logo.svgOn September 11 Human Right Watch issued a detailed report on three incidents of Israeli attacks against UNRWA shelters during the recent Gaza war, at Beit Hanoun, Jabaliya, and Rafah. According to HRW:

Three Israeli attacks that damaged Gaza schools housing displaced people caused numerous civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. In the first in-depth documentation of the violations, Human Rights Watch investigated the three attacks, which occurred on July 24 and 30, and August 3, 2014, and killed 45 people, including 17 children.

“The Israeli military carried out attacks on or near three well-marked schools where it knew hundreds of people were taking shelter, killing and wounding scores of civilians,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Israel has offered no convincing explanation for these attacks on schools where people had gone for protection and the resulting carnage.”

Two of the three attacks Human Rights Watch investigated – in Beit Hanoun and Jabalya – did not appear to target a military objective or were otherwise unlawfully indiscriminate. The third attack in Rafah was unlawfully disproportionate if not otherwise indiscriminate. Unlawful attacks carried out willfully – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are war crimes.

Asked about the report, US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was critical of the attacks on the UN schools. According to the Jerusalem Post:

“We were horrified by the strikes that hit UNRWA facilities,” Harf said. She emphasized that UNRWA facilities must not be used for military purposes, as some were by Hamas, and that they should not use civilians to shield fighters.

“But also at the same time,” Harf continued, “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. Israeli authorities say they’re investigating. We expect these to be investigated thoroughly and promptly, and we’ll continue pushing them to do so.”

Israel has opened an investigation into one of the three attacks, according to the Times of Israel.

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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.

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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
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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.

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.

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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
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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.

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.

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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.

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.