Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem | February 06, 2009
THE UN has retracted claims over one of the biggest controversies in the Gaza war, admitting that an Israeli mortar attack that killed 43 people did not hit a school run by a UN agency.
The January 6 incident, described at the time as the "school massacre", figured prominently in accusations that Israel committed war crimes in the deaths of hundreds of civilians during the war.
A statement issued yesterday by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Human Affairs acknowledged that it had wrongly blamed the deaths at the time on the "shelling of the UNRWA (Relief and Works Agency) school".
"The humanitarian co-ordinator would like to clarify that the shelling, and all of the fatalities, took place outside rather than inside the school," the statement said.
The clarification came several days after a journalist for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, Patrick Martin, interviewed Palestinians living near the school and a teacher, who told him that none of the casualties were in the school but on the street outside.
In a television interview the day of the incident at a Gaza hospital where casualties were brought, the UNRWA operations director in Gaza, John Ging, an Irish national, did not explicitly say the shells had hit the school but he left that impression.
"Those in the school were all families seeking refuge," he said. "There's nowhere safe in Gaza."
Neither Mr Ging nor other UN officials attempted subsequently to dispel the widespread suspicions of Israeli culpability, although they knew otherwise, until the newspaper report.
Israeli army spokesmen during the war said Israeli troops had fired three mortar shells in response to mortar fire from the area near the school, not from the school itself.
They said the dead included two identifiable Palestinian militants believed to have been involved in the mortar firing.
That denial, however, did not convince critics around the world, who continued to accuse Israel of deliberately targeting schools harbouring civilians seeking shelter, a belief buttressed by the UN statement.
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman, in a study of the Gaza conflict released this week, concluded that the Israeli Defence Forces did not violate the rules of war during the three-week campaign. He said Hamas was not bound by international conventions but was able to "manipulate humanitarian considerations" for propaganda leverage.
"The end result is a situation where one side can potentially be limited by international law where the other is not, and that effectively makes international law a potential weapon for the side that rejects and exploits it," writes Professor Cordesman, of Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"It is a situation that empowers and incentivises extremists to use civilians as the equivalent of human shields by embedding their forces in civilian populations and using sensitive buildings like mosques and schools. There is nothing new about such tactics."
An Israeli watchdog organisation, NGO Monitor, released a report this week accusing international human rights organisations of ignoring the use by Hamas of human shields while "publishing unverified eyewitness evidence and unaccountable casualty figures throughout the conflict, which have since been refuted. These claims helped create an assumption of Israeli guilt and were amplified by the media, influencing the conflict itself."
Meanwhile, a UN spokesman, in a rare public clash with Hamas, accused Hamas police of breaking into a Gaza warehouse full of UN humanitarian supplies and seizing thousands of blankets and food packages.
"They were armed, they seized this, they took it by force," said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness, who described the incident "absolutely unacceptable".