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Why UN 'reversal' over Gaza school should be treated with caution

By Jonathan Miller

Updated on 05 February 2009

Our foreign affairs correspondent on why a row over a clarification should not cloud the wider picture of an incident in which 43 people died.

A row has broken out between the United Nations and the Israel Defence Force over an incident in Gaza during the 22-day-long war. In the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, a piece announced yesterday that:

"The United Nations has reversed its stance on one of the most contentious and bloody incidents of the recent Israel Defence Forces operation in Gaza, saying that an IDF mortar strike that killed 43 people on 6 January did not hit one of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools after all."

The article quoted the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Jerusalem as saying that the UN "would like to clarify that the shelling and all of the fatalities took place outside and not inside the school".

The United Nations spokesman, whom I've just called, is very unhappy about what's being reported in Israel about this incident.

As one of the first western journalists to get into Gaza, I wanted to investigate exactly what did happen in Jabaliya, on the northern fringes of Gaza City, on 6 January.

It was the single bloodiest incident of the war. It had been widely reported by western journalists - none of whom was allowed into Gaza - that the school itself was targeted.

I have examined what was actually said at the time by the UN and by the Israelis. I also went to the scene, when I finally got into Gaza via Egypt, to hear first hand from local residents - and from the headmaster of the UN-run al-Fakhura primary school in question.

At the time of the "missile" strike, the school was sheltering nearly 2,000 refugees. The IDF had the school's co-ordinates.

What is not contested is that 43 people died. What is also absolutely clear is that no one inside the school was killed - a fact the UN is accused of twisting.

From the very outset, the UN said that the bombing took place outside the school. UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency which administers refugee assistance in Gaza, stuck to that.

John Ging, Director of UNRWA operations in Gaza was quoted by The Guardian as saying that three shells had landed "at the perimeter of the school". This is accurate.

Another branch of the UN, its humanitarian affairs agency (OCHA) also reported in its daily output of 6 January that the missile strikes had been outside the school. In its report of the following day, however, it mistakenly said the school itself had been shelled. This error was corrected earlier this month.

But it is this error that has been seized upon by the Israelis.

Ironically, the IDF spokesman Major Avital Leibovitz, told Alex Thomson in a live interview in Jerusalem on the night in question that "two Hamas militants," whom she named as Amar Abu Askar and Hassan Abu Askar, "were in the building and firing rockets."

The IDF later changed its story from saying Hamas militants were inside the school to telling foreign diplomats that the militants had been "next to the school".

When I went to the scene, I found the impact marks of three mortars in the middle of the street outside the school. The closest of these (and they were all within a few yards of each other) was about 20 yards from the distinctive blue-and-white wall of the school.

An investigator with Amnesty International who visited the same site independently told me she had found a fourth impact mark. An independent munitions expert identified the strike patterns as those of mortars. The IDF uses GPS-guided mortars, which are highly accurate. Surrounding buildings were splattered with the pockmarks of shrapnel.

Local residents in the street told me that militants had been firing rockets - as the IDF claimed - and having been targeted in retaliatory fire by the IDF, they ran down the street past the school.

That's when the mortars apparently landed. The street was full of people at the time, hence the allegation that most of those killed were civilians. I was unable to find out whether the militants were among the dead.

The headmaster of the al-Fakhura school told me that four people inside his school were injured by shrapnel from the mortars, but that the only person killed was one child who happened to be in the street outside at the moment of impact.

This may sound like a lot of detail to go into - but when it comes to determining whether or not customary international humanitarian law may have been breached (as has been alleged), this is the sort of detail that can be important.

Although a large number of civilians were apparently killed, all this may prove to be evidence which works in Israel's favour as it's pretty clear that the school itself was not the target.

The other reason I think it's important is that by seizing on one factual error by the UN - which was corrected anyway - the IDF fuels the suggestion that the UN's account of an incident in which 43 people died is a fabrication.

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