Rocket fire on Thursday struck a U.N.-run school in northern Gaza with high civilian casualties, adding a new tragic chapter to the story of the world body’s somewhat strained relationship with Israel.
The deadly strike came just two days after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly warned about the prospect of Israeli strikes against U.N. installations during the confrontation between Israel and Hamas. Speaking to the U.N. Security Council via videoconference from the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he was pushing for a cease-fire, Ban urged Israel to exercise restraint, recalling that Israeli missiles had struck U.N. facilities during previous conflicts.
"In the past, our premises in southern Lebanon and Gaza have been hit with serious loss of life," Ban told the council on Tuesday, July 22. "I call on Israel to exercise particular care to avoid another unfortunate incident."
On Thursday his words proved prescient, and U.N. officials initially suspected Israeli forces had fired the missiles at the school in Beit Hanoun, which was sheltering some 300 displaced Palestinians. But officials in New York and Jerusalem said they were not prepared to blame Israel because some of Hamas’s rockets had fallen in the same area, raising the possibility that the school might have been struck by a militant rocket. Israel has denied targeting the school but conceded that it had fired in the vicinity in response to Hamas’s fire.
The tragedy at Beit Hanoun came during a particularly grim week for the United Nations.
Three Palestinian teachers employed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were killed this week, marking the first casualties for the international organization since fighting began 16 days ago. Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman, announced on Twitter: "1st UNRWA deaths in #Gaza war, all teachers, 2 killed while at home, another walking home after working in an UNRWA shelter."
During his Tuesday videoconference with the Security Council, Ban praised UNRWA for carrying on in the midst of war. "I want to stress how deeply proud I am of our many U.N. colleagues, with UNRWA in the lead, courageously assisting the people of Gaza under such difficult circumstances."
He also said that the escalation in fighting was "acutely affecting" UNRWA’s operations and that 23 of its installations have been closed and 77 damaged during the latest round of fighting.
Palestinian militants have taken advantage of those closures, turning vacant U.N.-administered schools into temporary arsenals for rockets, causing even more friction between the United Nations and Israel. On Tuesday, it was an unspecified number of rockets housed in a vacant school sandwiched between two other UNRWA-administered schools that are now sheltering 1,500 displaced Palestinians. Last week, it was a batch of 20 rockets in another UNRWA-run facility.
Such news feeds Israeli suspicions that the United Nations is biased against Israel and that many of UNRWA’s Palestinian employees are sympathetic to Hamas’s cause. "UNRWA schools were established to educate children in Gaza, but instead they are providing a hiding place for rockets meant to kill children in Israel," Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post. Lieberman also reportedly protested to Ban about UNRWA’s alleged return of weapons it found to Hamas, a claim that UNRWA denies. It maintains that it transferred the weapons to local police under the command of the Palestinian government.
Maintaining that the Beit Hanoun school wasn’t targeted, the Israeli military on Thursday said it warned UNRWA workers to evacuate.
"Last night, the Israel Defense Forces told the Red Cross to evacuate civilians from UNRWA’s shelter in Beit Hanoun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. today," an Israeli military statement read. "UNRWA and the Red Cross received the message. Hamas prevented civilians from evacuating the area during the window that the IDF gave them," it added. "Today, July 24, Hamas continued firing from Beit Hanoun. The IDF responded by targeting the source of the fire. Also today, several rockets launched from Gaza toward Israel fell short and hit Beit Hanoun."
More than 75 UNRWA facilities have been damaged since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge to combat Hamas rocket fire and destroy a network of tunnels allowing Palestinian militants to launch armed raids into Israeli territory. Gunness said Thursday’s strike was the third this week affecting U.N. schools and shelters in Gaza.
"I am appalled by the news of an attack on an UNRWA school in northern Gaza where hundreds of people had taken refuge," Ban said in a statement issued from Erbil, Iraq, before he traveled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Cairo, where they will continue to press for a cease-fire. "Throughout the day, our staff had been attempting to arrange a humanitarian pause in the hostilities."
Ban and Kerry have been engaged in intense negotiations with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, as well as key regional powers, in an attempt to revive an Egyptian cease-fire initiative.
Ban said the circumstances of the attack remain "unclear," while other U.N. officials said they did not know how many people died — though one U.N. official in the region confirmed that no U.N. staff member was killed. Gaza’s Health Ministry claimed that as many as 15 people died in the attack and many more were injured.
More than 750 Palestinians and 35 Israelis have died since fighting erupted on July 8.