United Nations: Israel Responsible for Deaths at Gaza Schools

2015-03-31T171450Z_1999864491_GF10000045209_RTRMADP_3_ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS (1)
A Palestinian boy looks through a sheet covering the remains of his family’s damaged house in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, on March 31, 2015. Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Updated | Israel was responsible for the deaths of dozens of civilians at United Nations-run schools during the war in Gaza last summer, according to the summary of a U.N. report released Monday.

In seven incidents of shelling and bombing, the report said, the Israeli military killed 44 Palestinians and injured 227 others at U.N. locations that were being used as emergency shelters.

"Once again, I must stress my profound and continuing concern for the civilian population of the Gaza Strip and Israel, and their right to live in peace and security, free from the threat of violence of terrorism," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a cover letter for the summary of the report.

During the war, Israel said it hit the schools in response to gunfire and shelling by Palestinian militants allegedly located inside or nearby. The U.N. did not find any weapons in the seven schools the Israelis bombed or shelled. But the report did blame Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza, for putting other U.N. schools at risk by storing weapons inside them.

Indeed, Palestinian fighters kept rockets and 120 mm, high-explosive anti-tank projectiles, among other weapons, in three vacant schools that were "probably" the origin sites for rockets fired at Israel, the report found. Israel did not shell these three schools, nor were they used as civilian shelters.

As the war between Israel and Hamas ensued last summer, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) says it provided the Israeli military with the exact locations of its schools and numerous notifications about the presence of displaced people inside them.

"We were constantly updating the [Israeli military] about the fact that civilians fleeing the attacks were filling up our shelters," said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, in an email. "We handed over precise GPS coordinates and number of displaced people. And of course we were constantly requesting that civilian life should be spared."

Hamas did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

The Israeli military has long denied responsibility for the deaths of noncombatants in the school shellings, saying that Hamas stores weapons in places that put civilians at risk.

"The executive summary of the report clearly documents the exploitation by terrorist organizations of U.N. facilities in the Gaza Strip," the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Monday.

The report is the first to be released by the U.N. on the Gaza war last year, which left more than 2,200 Palestinians and 72 Israelis dead. The summary of the report doesn't accuse Israel of violating international law. But according to The New York Times, it could help the Palestinian Authority strengthen its case against Israel at the International Criminal Court, which it joined earlier this year.

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the report will have little impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is now in a "coma," especially with other conflicts erupting in the region.

"If you look at what Ban Ki-moon has already said publicly and what the Israeli foreign ministry has said, they go out of their way to demonstrate that this is the way the process [of investigating attacks] should be working," Miller said.

But the report summary could trigger fresh allegations that the U.N. is unfair and hostile to Israel. In 2011, Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, published the Goldstone Report, a fact-finding mission into Israeli and Palestinian atrocities committed during the Gaza conflict in January 2009. Israel said the report was biased, and Goldstone later agreed, saying the U.N. Human Rights Council, which commissioned the report, has a "history of bias against Israel [that] cannot be doubted."