An Israeli artillery shell attack killing 40 people and injuring 60 at a United Nations-run school in Gaza – the third to be hit so far – has fuelled accusations that the IDF are acting outside international legal and humanitarian standards.
The UN was last night said to be “furious” about both the incident and Israeli government attempts to suggest that the facility was being run by Hamas. An UNWRA spokesperson said “all the available evidence” suggested that the fighting was nearby, not emanating from the school.
Israel has been supplied with definitive map coordinates and information about the facilities, and has repeatedly said that it is taking care not to kill civilians. But eyewitnesses said that its actions in this instance are at best “careless” and at worst “criminal”.
Some 350 people had sought refuge at the school in an effort to escape the fighting between Israeli soldiers and militants on the outskirts of the Jabaliya refugee camp, to the east of Gaza City.
They were then killed and maimed by three Israeli shells. Television footage showed bodies scattered on the ground amid pools of blood.
More people died in this one incident than in all Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel in the past four years.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply dismayed" that despite its efforts to ensure protection for their institutions, three United Nations-run schools had now been hit by Israeli strikes.
The Israeli government, which has poured unprecedented resources into its propaganda operation and denied access to international journalists in Gaza, said that the school was being used for rockets attacks.
It also claimed that two Hamas militants had been killed in the school, but that the bodies could not be produced because they had been “concealed”.
Hospital workers, teachers and humanitarian workers said that these claims were unfounded.
The Israeli interior minister dismissed questions about the incident on BBC2’s Newsnight programme. He rejected suggestions about an independent enquiry, showed no remorse for the civilian deaths and claimed that the responsibility lay with Hamas.
Under pressure he claimed that the shelling of the school occurred “in the fog of war”.
But the UN humanitarian coordinator in Gaza said that there are serious issues about compliance with international legal and humanitarian obligations, which should not be swept aside.
Earlier, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned of a “full-blown humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, saying that life in the territory had become intolerable.
Two days ago, the Israeli health ministry refused to admit that there was a serious problem, but have backtracked in the light of pictures and evidence flooding the world’s media.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council has resumed debate on a ceasefire call in New York sponsored by Libya.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, several Arab foreign ministers, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are among those attending.
As international diplomatic pressure continued in the wake of the UN school carnage, Israel finally agreed to set up a “humanitarian corridor” in the Gaza Strip.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the Israeli military would suspend attacks in specified areas to allow Palestinians to stock on supplies.
Humanitarian groups have also repeated calls on Hamas to stop militants launching rockets into Israel.
The latest figures indicate that over some 600 Palestinians (including 195 children) and nine Israelis have died in the conflict so far.