An official board of inquiry has found that Israel killed and injured hundreds of Palestinians in seven attacks on United Nations-run schools in the Gaza Strip last summer.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent a published summary of the report to the Security Council on Monday. But notably lacking in his letter conveying the report was any call for Israel to be held accountable for the atrocities it details.
“I deplore the fact that at least 44 Palestinians were killed as a result of Israeli actions and at least 227 injured at United Nations premises being used as emergency shelters,” Ban writes.
But by once again failing to call for accountability for the perpetrators of these attacks, Ban is all but ensuring that Israel will kill again – both Palestinian civilians and UN personnel.
There is no need to speculate about this; Ban notes in his letter that this is the second time that he has had to call for an inquiry into Israeli attacks on UN schools and premises in Gaza.
The previous report into Israel’s 2008-2009 attacks led to no consequences or accountability for Israel, freeing it to carry out even more brutal attacks.
More than 2,200 Palestinians were killed during Israel’s 51-day air bombardment and ground assault last summer.
Israel knew where schools were
The report details the attacks on seven schools run by UNRWA between 21 July and 26 August 2014, in the north, central and southern regions of Gaza. In no case was there credible evidence of any military necessity that could remotely justify attacks on known places where civilians were sheltering.
It confirms that UN personnel repeatedly informed Israeli military authorities of the exact locations of all UN facilities, including twice-daily updates of the GPS coordinates of every facility being used as a shelter.
Nonetheless, Israel launched direct attacks on schools. On 21 July, for instance, shelling increased in the vicinity of the UNRWA Maghazi Preparatory Girls school in central Gaza. UNRWA urged people sheltering at the school to relocate to another school in what it deemed to be a safer area.
Many had done so by late afternoon, but hundreds remained in the school when at about 4:50 a.m. “the school was struck at roof level by direct fire” from an Israeli army tank shell, injuring a man and a child.
Ban’s summary states that “none of the witnesses who had testified to UNRWA had been aware of any activity by militant groups in the school or in its vicinity.”
The inquiry board notes that the school was well guarded at all times and that all persons who entered were registered.
And yet, the summary states, Israel claimed that its army “had identified significant enemy presence in the area around, and apparently also within, the school.”
The very next day, the UN coordinated a two-hour window with Israel so that its experts could examine the damage to the school.
While one expert was on the roof in a clearly marked vest, the school was hit again by two mortar rounds. The team member ran and was able to escape without injury but more damage was done to the school.
Based on photographs of the explosive remnants provided by the UN, Israeli army munitions experts claimed that the munitions could be of a type that is used by Hamas.
But the board of inquiry “however, found that the school had been hit by 81 MM mortar rounds fired by the IDF [Israeli army],” the summary states.
Other incidents documented by the report and described in the summary leave no doubt that attacks on schools were premeditated.
On 24 July, for instance, “UNRWA’s Gaza Field Office received a call from an IDF field commander indicating that the IDF was going to target a cluster of four other schools in Beit Hanoun, 800 metres away from the Elementary Co-educational ‘A’ and ‘D’ School” in northern Gaza.
Local officials immediately set about trying to evacuate the elementary school, which was within an Israeli-declared “buffer zone,” with help from UNRWA and the Red Crescent. Sheltering civilians gathered in the schoolyard to await evacuation.
At approximately 3 p.m., the school was hit by artillery fire: “At least two 120 MM high explosive (HE) mortar projectiles struck the school, one hitting the middle of the schoolyard and a second hitting the steps in front of the school’s entrance. Between 12 and 14 residents were killed and 93 injured, some severely.”
“The Board found that the incident was attributable to the IDF,” the report confirms.
According to the report, Israel admitted that there existed “grounds for a reasonable suspicion that the incident involved a deviation from IDF regulations” and that it had launched a “criminal investigation.”
But eight months later, no indictments have been announced and based on long precedent, there is little reason to expect Israel to hold itself accountable.
On 29 July at approximately 1:30 a.m., seven people were injured when a projectile struck a building where dozens were sleeping at the UNRWA Zaitoun Preparatory Girls “B” School in a crowded section of Gaza City.
Israel claimed that it “had not been possible to identify any IDF operational activity on the date in question that could be connected to the incident, including any aerial strike on the school or in its vicinity.”
But the board of inquiry independently found that “the school had been hit by a missile, possibly a ‘Spike’ missile, launched from the air by the IDF.”
The Spike, manufactured by the Israeli arms company Rafael, is marketed as a sophisticated missile designed to “hit the target at its most vulnerable part with pinpoint precision.”
Jabaliya school massacre
At the height of the Israeli assault on Gaza, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes. By 30 July, more than 3,000 were sheltering at the UNRWA Jabaliya Elementary Girls “A” and “B” School located in a heavily built up area of the Jabaliya refugee camp.
The board of inquiry confirmed that the school is enclosed by a three-meter-high wall, has only one gate and was carefully guarded against any unauthorized entrance. “Weapons were prohibited inside the school and witness testimony appeared to the Board to confirm that this rule was strictly observed,” the summary states.
Although there was no fighting in the area of the school, early on 30 July, “the school was hit by a barrage of four 155 MM high explosive (HE) projectiles,” killing between 17 and 18 people, including a UN guard and his son, and injuring 99 others.
“The Board found that the incident was attributable to the actions of the IDF,” the report states, “and that no prior warning had been given by the Government of Israel of the firing of 155 MM high explosive projectiles on, or in the surrounding area of, the school.”
Weapons storage at UN schools
The report does not substantiate frequent claims that UNRWA schools are routinely used for weapons storage or armed activities by resistance fighters.
It examined three incidents in which weapons were found stored in unused UNRWA schools, and determined that UNRWA moved very quickly to deal with them. Contrary to Israeli claims at the time, in no case did the UN hand the weapons over to Hamas.
Ban’s letter states that in two cases, Palestinian fighters “probably” fired weapons from unused facilities.
Given the catastrophic situation in Gaza, and the fact the the understaffed and underfunded UN agency was struggling to deal with a massive humanitarian emergency, the report found that it would not have been possible to ensure absolute security at unused facilities.
Despite this, UNRWA instituted daily inspections of its hundreds of unusued buildings in order to ensure that they were not being used for armed activities.
At one of the schools where a mortar was found, the UN guards had had to flee due to “life-threatening circumstances” in the area.
No call for accountability or justice
Ban’s summary of the unpublished 207-page full report details some of the recommendations of the board of inquiry for both UNRWA and Israel.
The tenor seems to be that Israel and the UN should work together to make Israeli attacks on Gaza just a little bit more “coordinated.”
The only mention of “accountability” relates to UN personnel, not to Israel which was found responsible for all of the school attacks.
The word justice does not appear at all.
The UN should publish the full report so that its findings are not filtered by a secretary general who is widely seen by Palestinians and international human rights defenders as too willing to bend to Israeli pressure.
In the coming weeks Ban must decide whether to add Israel’s army to an official UN list of serious violators of children’s rights.
In light of this inquiry’s findings, his decision will be telling.