An Israeli army inquiry into fighting at a UN facility in Beit Hanoun Thursday found that IDF mortars did not play a role in the killing of 16 people in the school courtyard, dismissing claims that the military was responsible for their deaths.
The army admitted that an IDF-fired shell did hit the UN-run school’s yard, but at a time when there were no people in the area.
“A single errant mortar landed in the school courtyard, injuring no one,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Sunday in a conference call.
Lerner described a scene of “intense fighting” in the vicinity of the school last Thursday afternoon, including volleys of anti-tank missiles fired at soldiers, who responded with live fire. The militant fire, Lerner said, came from the areas “adjacent to, and in the vicinity of, the school.”
Palestinian accounts said 16 people were killed in the school as a result of the fighting, with initial reports blaming Israel for the deaths.
Lerner suggested that the 16 dead and dozens of wounded could have been caught in the crossfire and brought into the courtyard, perhaps for treatment, or may have been hit by rockets or mortars fired by the militants themselves.
He said he had “no idea” where the dead had come from, and stated that it was “extremely unlikely” that anyone had been killed by the single mortar round that fell in the empty yard.
“In light of the inquiry’s findings,” a formal statement from the army read, “the IDF rejects the claims that were made by various officials immediately following the incident, that people were killed in the school premises as a result of IDF operational activity.”
Lerner added that, in a move he termed “out of the ordinary,” Palestinian health officials in Gaza did not share the nature of the wounds of the casualties, which may have shed light on the causes of death.
Eyewitnesses told reporters in Gaza on Thursday that there had been no militants in the vicinity of the school.
“We had no resistance at all in the area,” Gazan Bilal Nassir told The New York Times.
Amina Nassir, whose three daughters were wounded in the attack, said she was sitting in the courtyard waiting for a convoy of buses that were to transport the refugees to a safer spot at the time of the attack.
A Hamas statement in a Ma’an news article called the attack on the school an “ugly crime” for which the Israelis “will pay.”
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said he was “appalled” by the attack. He noted, too, however, alongside a condemnation of the act, that the “circumstances are still unclear.”
Robert Turner, the director for UNRWA, told al-Jazeera that the location of the facility “was conveyed to the Israelis,” and that the school was “monitored [to ensure] that our neutrality was maintained.”
UN facilities in enemy territory have played a significant role in Israel’s asymmetric conflicts over the past two decades.
The April 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath in southern Lebanon, meant to quell Hezbollah rocket fire on northern Israel, was brought to a halt shortly after four artillery rounds hit a UN facility in the village of Kana, killing 102 people, including four UN personnel. The Israeli artillery strike came as a response to Hezbollah fire from nearby and in order to assist a force — under the command of now-Minister of Economics and Trade Naftali Bennett — that had been ambushed in the field.
During the Second Lebanon War, on July 30, 2006, an Israeli Air Force plane bombed a building hiding Hezbollah rocket launchers, resulting in the deaths of 28 people and hastening the onset of a ceasefire agreement.