Israel has acknowledged that troops fired a mortar shell that hit the courtyard of a UN school in Gaza last week, but said aerial footage shows the yard was empty at the time and that the shell could not have killed anyone. The shell was not fired at the school intentionally, an army spokesman said yesterday.
Palestinian officials have said three Israeli tank shells hit the school in the town of Beit Hanoun last Thursday, killing 16 people and wounding dozens. It was one of the single deadliest incidents during three weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting. The school was one of dozens used to house tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced by heavy fighting, especially in areas of Gaza bordering Israel.
The UN aid agency that operates the schools called for a full investigation. "It is important in a case like this where a UN school in which hundreds of people took refuge is hit in this way, that there should be full transparency and accountability," Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said yesterday.
He noted that when the UN agency attempted to conduct its own investigation, "the mission was aborted after a firing incident at the school." Gunness did not say who he believed was responsible for that fire. He said the school had been clearly marked as a UN shelter, and that the Israeli military was aware of its location.
On Thursday, the UN made numerous phone calls to the army to request a pause for the evacuation of civilians, but that the request was not granted. Lt Col Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said that a military probe shows that "a single errant mortar landed in the courtyard." It is "extremely unlikely that anybody was killed as a result of this mortar," he said. Lerner pointed to aerial footage released that he said showed the courtyard was empty at the time the mortar was fired.