U.N. Says School in Gaza Where 43 Died Wasn't Hit by Israeli Fire

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 7, 2009

GAZA CITY, Feb. 6 -- The United Nations said this week that Israeli mortar fire that killed at least 43 people in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp on Jan. 6 had landed just outside a U.N.-run school housing refugees from the fighting but did not hit the school itself.

Israel has said the attack was in response to Palestinian fire coming from the area around the school.

On the day of the incident, and in the weeks since, there were conflicting reports over whether the Israeli strikes hit the building.

John Ging, director of operations in the Gaza Strip for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said in an interview this week that the mortar shells had landed in the street immediately beyond the school's walls. Among the dead, he said, were those who had sought shelter in the school but happened to have been standing directly in front of it when the mortar shells landed. "It did kill and injure people who had sought shelter inside the school," he said.

That account was corroborated Friday by Palestinians who said that they had witnessed the attack and that the shells had landed in a large crowd.

"They were going to the market to buy food," said Sami al-Sayed, 39, a neighbor. He said he heard the explosions and saw dozens of wounded and dead people lying in the street.

At the time of the attack, The Washington Post reported that a large number of the casualties were women and children who had gathered at the school because they considered it a haven from the fighting.

Hospital physician Basam Warda said people were standing outside the gates of the school when the shells hit.

The physical evidence also suggested that the mortar shells had landed outside the school. Several small craters remained in the street Friday. The school did not appear to have been hit. But its white stucco walls were scarred by what appeared to be marks from shrapnel. Ging said that 13 people on the school grounds sustained shrapnel injuries.

Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, fought a 22-day war that left 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. The incident at the school was the most prominent of a series of attacks in which the United Nations accused Israel of firing at or near U.N. facilities and personnel.

In the hours after the attack, the Israeli military said that it had been returning fire against Palestinian fighters who were shooting mortar shells from within the school. A different U.N. agency reported days later that the Israeli fire had hit the school. But Ging said that the U.N. Relief and Works Agency has maintained from the beginning that the strikes landed outside the school.

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Maj. Peter Lerner said Friday that at least two Palestinian gunmen who had launched mortar shells from an area adjacent to the school had been killed when Israeli forces returned fire.

He questioned the death toll reported by Palestinian medical officials, saying Israel was aware of the names of only three of those killed in the attack. But Palestinian health official Moawia Abu Hassanin on Friday stood by the death count of at least 43 dead, including 16 who were younger than 17.

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