Conflict & Justice

After civilians are killed at a UN school in Gaza, Palestinians wonder if any place is safe


A Palestinian man holds a girl at a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip. Medics said she was injured in shelling at a UN-run school sheltering Palestinian refugees on July 24, 2014.


Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

Tens of thousands of Gazans have fled their homes and sought shelter at schools run by the United Nations. But even there, they aren't safely out of the line of fire.

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The UN has dozens of facilities in the Gaza Strip that now house some 118,000 displaced people. UN officials say that four of the schools-turned-refugee centers have now come under attack in the last several days.

On Thursday, one attack hit a school compound in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. But the details of precisely what happened are murky.

Palestinian officials say Israeli tank shells hit the school. The Israel Defense Forces say it's a possibility and that they are investigating the matter. But officials, including Mark Regev, the spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claimed that rockets Hamas fired at Israel from Beit Hanoun had malfunctioned and fallen back into the town.

Meanwhile, the UN also says it was trying to negotiate a humanitarian truce with the Israeli military so that people could leave the school and avoid fighting nearby. UN officials say they repeatedly provided the coordinates of the shelter to the Israel Defense Forces. Meanwhile, the IDF says they arranged such a pause and informed the UN, but Hamas militants prevented civilians from leaving the school on Thursday. 

The one thing that is clear is that at least 15 people were killed and more than 200 were injured in the incident. A BBC news team went to the school after the shells hit, and found an empty courtyard with pools of blood.

The CBC's Derek Stoffel was at the main hospital in Gaza City when some of the victims arrived from Beit Hanoun. He described “terrible scenes of people coming in,” some of them “bloodied children and women.”

“Once again, it seems that wherever the strikes came from, children and women are ending up in the thick of this,” Stoffel said.

Officials say that more than 750 Palestinians — many of them civilians — have been killed since the IDF began its military campaign in Gaza more than two weeks ago. Thirty-three Israelis have also died, all but two of them soldiers.

Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said the UN school in Beit Hanoun was not a target.

“We do not target schools, and we do not target the UN,” Lerner was quoted saying in the Washington Post.

But the UN is concerned for the safety of the people who have flocked to 83 of its facilities in the Palestinian territory.