Without singling out Israel, the White House condemned an early Wednesday morning attack on an UNRWA school in northern Gaza where over 3,300 civilians had sought refuge after the IDF warned them to leave their homes.
The United Nations has charged that Israeli artillery fire hit the school even though it had provided the IDF with the building’s precise coordinates 17 times. It said its last report to the IDF was at 8:50 p.m. on Tuesday.
UNRWA’s director of northern Gaza operations, Khalil al-Halabi, said at least 19 people were killed in the attack and 125 people were wounded, including five who are in critical condition. He added that six of the dead, including two children, were from the same family.
Israel said it is probing the incident. Lt.-Col. Peter Lerner said that “terrorists were shooting from the area of that location” at the time the school was hit.
UNRWA schools are not always neutral facilities, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Wednesday, adding that Israel has ample evidence that Hamas is using UNRWA schools and facilities for terrorist purposes.
The White House was careful not to blame Israel for the attack.
“The United States condemns the shelling of a UNRWA school in Gaza, which reportedly killed and injured innocent Palestinians – including children – and UN humanitarian workers,” White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.
“We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN designated shelters in Gaza,” she said.
But the UN said it believed Israel had attacked the school.
“All available evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause,” UN Secretary General Ban-Ki moon told reporters during a visit to Costa Rica.
“Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children,” he said, adding that the IDF was “aware of the coordinates and exact locations where these people are being sheltered.”
People were in the school because the IDF “instructed them to seek sanctuary at UN sites, including the one repeatedly shelled today,” Ban said. “I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable.
And it demands accountability and justice.”
Brig.-Gen. Moti Almoz told Channel 2 it was too early to draw conclusions about the attack. But speaking generally, he said, “We are sorry about the harm caused to civilians.” Almoz charged that Hamas was “cynically exploiting civilians.”
Israel has been upset over reports by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians that weapons have been found in three of its schools in Gaza.
Two weeks ago it handed 20 rockets found in one of its schools to the local authorities, a move which many of its critics believe was equivalent to giving them to Hamas.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said that the representatives from the national consensus government who arrived to move the weapons had no connection to Hamas.
Last week, when UNRWA discovered weapons in one of its facilities, it did not immediately report the find and before it could figure out what to do, the weapons disappeared.
On Tuesday, UNRWA found more rockets in a school in central Gaza during a regular inspection of the property, according to Gunness.
“Because of fighting in the vicinity of the school we have been unable to get a UN munitions expert to the school, but we hope to do as soon as the security conditions allows,” Gunness said.
The Jabalia elementary school that was hit Wednesday morning was not connected to those incidents, including one that occurred on Tuesday. None of the other schools, which the US believes were attacked by Israel, had rockets on their premises, Gunness said.
He condemned the groups that placed the rockets on UNRWA facilities but did not finger Hamas as the culprit.
Gunness warned that if the conflict continues, UNRWA would no longer have the capacity to serve Gaza refugees.
“UNRWA is at breaking point. Our shelters are overflowing, on average there are over 200,000 people in our shelters, five of our staff has been killed our facilities have been hit, our coffers are empty,” he said.
“There is a limit to which we can continue to deal with the consequences of the military decisions that the warring parties are taking,” Gunness said.
“We are in a completely unsustainable position,” he added.
In Washington, Meehan condemned those responsible “for hiding weapons in UN facilities,” though she too did not specify that the rockets belong to Hamas, a terrorist organization as listed by the United States.
“All of these actions, and similar ones earlier in the conflict, are inconsistent with the UN’s neutrality,” Meehan said. “This violence underscores the need to achieve a cease-fire as soon as possible.”
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US has called for an immediate investigation into the incident.
Harf said the US government would not rely on the UN allegations, and that it would “attempt to get our own facts.”
“Hamas has put these civilians at risk,” Harf said, noting that it has been “hiding fighters in these schools.”
Nevertheless, Harf continued, the US believes that UN facilities “are neutral, and people should not be targeted in them.”
Speaking at a press briefing in Jerusalem, Hanegbi pointed out UNRWA has admitted that on three occasions it found rockets in its facilities.
“Who knows how many were not found,” he said, adding that this phenomenon was “totally unacceptable.”
Each time that the rockets were found, he said, they were given back to Hamas and have probably already been fired at Israel, “endangering and jeopardizing Israeli lives.”
“Instead of blaming and condemning Israel, UNRWA should make a real effort to stop being manipulated and used by the terrorist organizations,” Hanegbi said.
While saying that over a span of decades UNRWA “has done a great job helping the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip,” especially giving “blessed refuge for people leaving combat areas to save themselves,” Hanegbi stressed that the organization has failed to prevent its facilities from being used as terrorist headquarters and a hiding place for rockets.
The Obama administration has called for the demilitarization of Hamas, and again on Wednesday reiterated its support for Israel’s right to defend itself.