WASHINGTON — US State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki delivered an unusually strong condemnation of an Israeli strike near a Gaza school being used as a shelter in Rafah, saying that the US was “appalled” by the “disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school.”
The shelling, which left 10 people dead according to Palestinian reports, drew harsh condemnations worldwide, including from the United Nations, London and elsewhere, amid growing international criticism of the 27-day-long operation.
The IDF issued a statement saying that forces had targeted three Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists on board a motorcycle in vicinity of an UNRWA school in Rafah, and added that “the IDF is reviewing the consequences of this strike.”
However, the US said that the presence of combatants did not justify targeting areas near the school.
“The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians,” Psaki said.
The US statement noted that the school was, at the time, sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, and that “at least 10 more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed.” Although the statement noted that the shells struck outside of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees school, Harf’s statement grouped the incident together with other strikes at UN facilities.
“The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defense Forces,” the statement emphasized.
“UN facilities, especially those sheltering civilians, must be protected, and must not be used as bases from which to launch attacks,” Psaki said.
Psaki reiterated previous calls for “full and prompt investigations” of shelling at or around UNRWA facilities and said that “Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”
According to UNRWA officials, their facilities are currently sheltering some 250,000 Gazans seeking to flee active combat zones. Israel has been accused of hitting some UN facilities during the almost month-long escalation in Gaza, but UNRWA officials have also acknowledged that rockets were discovered stored in at least three of the organization’s schools.
“We continue to underscore that all parties must take all feasible precautions to prevent civilian casualties and protect the civilian population and comply with international humanitarian law,” Psaki said.
Before the reports of the latest strike came in, senior White House adviser and Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett addressed the ongoing violence on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday morning.
Describing the conflict as “a devastating situation,” Jarrett asserted that “Israel absolutely has the right to defend itself, and we are Israel’s staunchest ally.”
At the same time, she added that “you also can’t condone the killing of all of these innocent children,” referring to the hundreds of civilian casualties reported in Gaza over the course of the past three weeks.
Without specifying names, Jarrett said that she “think[s] everyone involved is frustrated.”
“But you can’t let your frustration get in the way of trying to be a constructive player here,” she added, saying that “that’s what [Obama’s] determined to do.”
British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond also said that he was “appalled” by the strike near the UNRWA school, but in a statement issued before the IDF acknowledged that it was Israeli shells that landed outside the Rafah facility, he did not directly ascribe blame.
“The facts are not yet clear, but it is tragic that there are further losses of life in a place which is being used as a shelter,” Hammond said.
Commenting after phone calls to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Hammond reiterated the UK’s position on the need for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.
According to Hammond, in the calls, the new foreign minister discussed possible resolutions to the Gaza crisis and “reiterated the UK’s position on the need for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire, for every effort to be made to prevent further civilian casualties.”
“Hamas must also cease the firing of rockets at Israeli communities and endangering the lives of the Israeli population,” he added. Hammond said that “in order to be sustainable, any ceasefire agreement needs to show a clear path to real change in Gaza for the future if we are to avoid future conflict and improve life for ordinary Gazans as well as address Israel’s legitimate security needs.”
Earlier, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed for the sides to “put an end to the madness,” in Gaza, describing the strike on the school as “a moral outrage and a criminal act.”
Amid reports that IDF ground troops were wrapping up their anti-tunneling operations in Gaza, Hammond commented that he “welcome[s] indications that Israeli forces may begin to withdraw from Gaza within the next few days.”
“It’s vital that we find a way forward that is enduring and any solution would need to provide genuine stability, and not simply lead to a repeat of the cycle of violence,” he added.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed the bulk of ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza after the military concluded it had destroyed most of the tunnel network.
He said Israel had detected some 30 tunnels that were dug along the border for what he called a “synchronized attack” on Israel.
“We’ve caused substantial damage to this network to an extent where we’ve basically taken this huge threat and made it minimal,” he said. The army had thousands of troops in Gaza at the height of the operation.
In southern Israel, armored vehicles could be seen rolling slowly onto the back of large flatbed trucks near the Gaza border, while soldiers folded flags from atop a tank and rolled up their belongings and sleeping bags.
Lerner said, however, that the operation was not over and that Israel would continue to target Hamas’ rocket-firing capabilities and its ability to infiltrate Israel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.