IDF probing deadly strike on Gaza UN shelter, says it may have been caused by Hamas

Army says it’s ruled out airstrike or artillery fire by troops, but still investigating other possibilities; US calls incident in which 9 were killed and 75 injured ‘deplorable’

Palestinians carry a a body of a person killed in the strike of an UNRWA vocational training center, which displaced people use as a shelter in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramez Habboub)
Palestinians carry a a body of a person killed in the strike of an UNRWA vocational training center, which displaced people use as a shelter in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramez Habboub)

The Israel Defense Forces said it was investigating a deadly strike Wednesday on a United Nations shelter in southern Gaza but noted it may have been caused by an errant Hamas rocket.

“Two tank rounds hit building that shelters 800 people — reports now 9 dead and 75 injured,” tweeted UNRWA’s Gaza director Thomas White, blaming Israel for the strike in Khan Younis where the IDF has been operating intensely, going off of intelligence indicating that Hamas’s top military leaders are hiding in tunnels underneath the city.

The Israeli army later responded to a query on the matter, saying that “after an inspection of operational systems, the IDF has now ruled out the possibility that the incident was caused by an airstrike or artillery fire by IDF forces.

“At the same time, the IDF is conducting an in-depth examination of ground forces’ activity in the area of ​​the facility,” the response from the IDF continued, ostensibly leaving open the possibility that its troops might have been behind the strike.

“The IDF is investigating the possibility that the strike was caused by Hamas fire,” the military added.

In an earlier response Wednesday, the IDF said the wider area surrounding the UN center was a significant base of Hamas terrorists.

Palestinians try to extinguish a fire at a building of an UNRWA vocational training center in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, which displaced people were using as a shelter, after it was hit on January 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramez Habboub)

“Dismantling Hamas’s military framework in western Khan Younis is at the heart of the logic behind the operation,” it said.

The White House decried the strike while avoiding assigning blame.

“We are gravely concerned by reports today of strikes hitting a UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) facility — with subsequent reports of fires in the building — in a neighborhood in southern Gaza where more than 30,000 displaced Palestinians had reportedly been sheltering,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.

“While we don’t yet have all the details on what happened and will continue to seek further information regarding today’s incidents, the loss of every innocent life is a tragedy,” Watson said.

Asked about the incident during a press briefing before the IDF announced its investigation, US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said the Biden administration “deplore[s]” the attack.

“Civilians must be protected, and the protected nature of UN facilities must be respected, and humanitarian workers must be protected so that they can continue providing civilians with the life-saving humanitarian assistance that they need,” Patel said.

Footage circulating among Palestinians showed black smoke pouring into the sky above the vocational training center, which is operated by the UN relief organization for the Palestinians and has been functioning as a shelter during the war. An UNRWA team trying to reach the center was blocked, White said.

In their biggest operation in a month, Israeli tanks have pushed through Khan Younis, where many Palestinians sheltered after leaving the north — the early focus of the war. Large numbers of Palestinians have now moved further south to Rafah, per Israeli instructions.

The IDF’s main target appears to be the area around Khan Younis’s long-standing refugee camp, which includes the Nasser and Al-Amal hospitals and also the UNRWA training center.

Residents reported fierce gun battles in the area, where the military said it had killed “numerous” squads of gunmen “with sniper, tank and aerial fire.”

The Palestinian Red Cross Society, which runs the Al-Amal hospital, said troops had blockaded its staff inside and imposed a curfew in the area, including its local headquarters, where three displaced individuals had been killed.

Martin Griffiths, UN coordinator of emergency relief, said on Tuesday that 24 people had been killed in strikes on an aid warehouse, a UN center and a humanitarian zone in the Khan Younis area and that an aid distribution center had come under heavy bombardment.

The Israeli military had earlier ordered the evacuation of the area, which the UN humanitarian office said held half a million people, four-fifths of them displaced by fighting in other parts of the coastal strip.

People ferry water at a makeshift tent camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 24, 2024. (AFP)

However, Reuters reported that Israeli tanks advancing eastward down al-Bahar road toward Nasser Hospital had blocked the escape route from the city toward the Mediterranean coastal highway.

The highway leads toward Rafah on the Egyptian border — already crammed with more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million people. Some resorted to dirt roads to try to escape, residents and reporters leaving the area said.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby was asked about the strike on the shelter earlier Wednesday before the State Department had formulated its statement.

He declined to comment on the specifics but stressed that Israel’s shift to low-intensity fighting in large parts of Gaza does not mean that there will not be further civilian casualties.

“The Israelis have taken steps to transition their operations. They have removed a division [from Gaza] — that’s thousands of troops. They are pursuing more targeted operations against the military leadership. They are relying less on airstrikes,” Kirby noted. Wednesday’s incident took place in southern Gaza, though, whereas the IDF’s transition to lower-intensity fighting has largely been in northern Gaza.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and other officers tour the scene of a deadly blast in the central Gaza Strip, January 23, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“‘Low-intensity operations’ does not mean ‘no-intensity operations.’ Even in a low-intensity environment… you’re still going to be in combat… and there are still going to be casualties.”

Kirby did say, though, that the food situation in Gaza was “dire” and that the US was working to get more aid into the Strip.

In a statement earlier Wednesday, the IDF said its 98th Division was continuing the large-scale offensive against Hamas in the area of Khan Younis, which it said was “increasing the pressure” on Hamas, while eliminating “many terror cells” with sniper fire, tank shelling and airstrikes.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said earlier Wednesday that 210 people had been killed in the Strip in the past 24 hours, as the IDF said it continued to battle and kill armed Hamas gunmen and terror cells.

The IDF said troops from its Commando Brigade carried out raids on Hamas sites in the Khan Younis camp, where they encountered many operatives, including squads preparing to fire anti-tank missiles.

A day earlier, the military announced the deaths of 24 IDF soldiers in the Strip, three of whom were killed in Khan Younis and 21 in a building collapse in central Gaza following an explosion.

In central Gaza, the IDF said later Wednesday that it demolished a Hamas tunnel that was located just one and a half kilometers from the Israeli border.

At least 25,700 Gazans have been killed so far in the war, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said Wednesday, an unverified figure which is believed to include close to 10,000 Hamas operatives Israel said it has killed during fighting in the Strip. Two hundred and nineteen IDF soldiers have been killed in the Gaza ground offensive.

Israel launched its offensive on Hamas following the terror group’s murderous rampage through communities and a music festival in southern Israel, in which it killed close to 1,200 people and took another 253 hostages, 132 of whom are believed to still be held captive in Gaza.

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released by the military on January 24, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

While fighting in northern Gaza has been less intensive in recent weeks, a UN mission tasked with assessing conditions in northern Gaza has yet to begin amid Israeli concerns that the area is not yet safe, two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The US is looking for Palestinians to be allowed to return to northern Gaza after the IDF ordered its one million residents to evacuate at the beginning of the war. The safety concern voiced by Israel also appears to be an implicit acknowledgment that it does not have complete control of northern Gaza, even after ending what it called high-intensity fighting in the area earlier this month.

A US official said that the Biden administration trusts the Israeli assessment, but is also cognizant that Jerusalem may try and drag its feet in allowing the UN team to complete its mission. The official acknowledged that Israel is in no rush to allow Palestinians to return to northern Gaza, given that it has not yet determined who will be in charge of running civil affairs in that area, where Hamas is said to have largely lost its hold.

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