Perhaps the most difficult moment in the recent Gaza war occurred when the reports filtered out that Israel had bombed an UNRWA school killing 43 people, some of them students. The UN and the world media blasted Israel, saying that she deliberately targeted the school. Others, were quick to point out Hamas’ record of using UN Schools as human shields, firing from the buildings so Israeli soldiers would injure/kill the schools inhabitants when returning the fire.
The truth is, both sides were wrong. The UN School bombing was the Muhammad al Dura moment of the Gaza war. Israel didn’t stike the school. But it did strike close enough to the school for Hamas to claim that the school WAS hit. The comdemnations were unjustified, but like al Dura, the world believed and still believes the worst. In this case, the Fantasy of the powerful Israeli military, striking an innocent school building.
Yesterday the UN finally admitted the truth. The question is, why did they take so long?
by Steven Stotsky
On January 7, 2009 news coverage across the world decried an Israeli attack on the UN-run al-Fakhura (Fakhoury) school in Jabaliya refugee camp the prior day. “Strike at Gaza School Kills 40” was the headline on the BBC’s web site, “Israeli shelling kills dozens at UN school in Gaza,” charged the Guardian. “Massacre of Innocents as UN school is shelled,” declared the Independent. “Toll at UN school reaches 43,” observed the LA Times.
Three weeks later, long after the alleged incident had become firmly ensconced in public consciousness, an investigatory piece by Patrick Martin in the Toronto Globe and Mail (Jan. 29) revealed that no one sheltering on the school grounds had been killed. The misportrayal of the incident was due in no small measure to the misleading comments of John Ging, director of UNRWA’s Gaza operation and Chris Gunness, the organization’s public relations consultant.
Initial reports show that the basic facts about the shelling incident were known soon afterwards, but there was imprecision in the details. Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor stated on the day of the incident that Israel “know(s) for a fact that a Hamas squad was firing mortar shells from the immediate vicinity of the school, from the school grounds.” (CNN, Jan. 6, 2009)
When questioned what he meant by vicinity, Palmor added that the mortar team was “right next to the wall.” The Israelis knew the exact location of the Hamas squad, but Palmor mistakenly placed them within the school grounds. Gunness and Ging responded to the accusation that Hamas fighters may have been located in the school grounds by demanded proof from the Israelis. Gunness released a statement asserting “We at UNRWA are 99.9 percent certain there were no militants at that school when this instance took place.” (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Jan. 7, 2009)
As a response to spokesman Palmor’s initial mistaken assertion that Hamas fighters were on the school grounds, the strong denials by Ging and Gunness were appropriate. But their response contains a crucial deception. By failing to clearly establish that the shells had exploded outside the school grounds and omitting the crucial fact that all of those killed were outside of the school grounds, Ging and Gunness allowed enough ambiguity to provide an opening for news reporters to run with the story that the school itself had been shelled and by implication, that those sheltering within it had been killed.
The Guardian wrote of the incident, “Two Israeli tank shells struck the school in Jabaliya refugee camp, spraying shrapnel on people inside and outside the building, according to news agency reports.”
The Independent reported on January 11:
At least three mortar rounds landed in the compound, even though the UN had given Israel the co-ordinates of all its installations in Gaza to prevent any such attack.
In another piece titled “Massacre of Innocents as UN School is Shelled,” (Jan. 7) the Independent did acknowledge that the shells hit outside the school, but nevertheless castigated Israel for its “strike on the school” and refered to the deaths that resulted from the shellings as “the school killings.”
The BBC stated, “A number of children were among those who died when the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp was hit, doctors at nearby hospitals said,” although later on in the piece it did acknowledge that the shells hit outside of the school.
The Independent’s piece on Jan. 11, took its cue from comments made by Ging. The official UN transcript of Ging’s comments at a press conference five days after the incident states:
Ging said the school was clearly marked as a U.N. building and that GPS coordinates for the site had been provided to Israeli forces.
Asked whether Hamas militants had been in the vicinity of the Jabaliya school at the time of the strike, he said that he would not speculate on that.
Earlier, Ging was reported to have said, “I am very confident now that there was no militant activity. If anybody has evidence to the contrary, then let’s bring it forward,” (The Independent, Jan. 11, 2009)
These statements by Ging perpetuated the misperception that the school had been attacked. The facts were already known, as evidenced by a report in The New York Times that same day that “43 people died when the Israelis shelled a street next to a United Nations school in northern Jabaliya where refugees were taking shelter.” Ging later admitted, “I know no one was killed in the school.” So why did he make a point of publicizing that he gave the Israelis the GPS coordinates of the school? His statement about the GPS coordinates only served to implicate Israeli forces for firing on the school, when in fact the Israelis did not fire on the school.
The Globe and Mail article also points out the unusual flip-flop in the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reporting on the incident. The Globe and Mail cites “early reports” by the OCHA that “three artillery shells landed outside the UNRWA Jabalia Prep. C Girls School …” but in the OCHA’s more comprehensive weekly report, published three days later, the story changed claiming that “Israeli shelling directly hit two UNRWA schools …” (one of those schools being al-Fakhura school.)
The lack of clarity and cloaking of crucial information by UNRWA had its effect. More than two weeks after the incident, the LA Times still reported that the Israelis had shelled the school. A Jan. 23 piece discussed the moral questions surrounding the
Israeli shelling of a school run by the United Nations Relief Works Agency in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinians had sought shelter there. The Israeli military says it encountered mortar rounds coming from the school and returned fire. The U.N. said that 42 civilians died and that no militants fired from the compound. (LA Times, Jan. 23, 2009)
It is also unclear why Ging denies that there were militants in the school compound and avoids discussion of Israel’s claim that there were Hamas fighters directly adjacent to the school grounds. Since the shells had targeted militants outside the compound, asserting that there were no militants inside the compound only confuses the issue by continuing to refute the initial inaccurate Israeli claim without addressing the facts that were by then known.
Ging has called for an investigation of the incident, yet curiously, the Globe and Mail article reveals that UN personnel at the school have been told not to speak with the media about the incident. Nevertheless, the Associated Press and others had no trouble finding Palestinian witnesses who saw the Hamas mortar squad.
Despite admitting no one in the school was killed, Ging continues to implicitly accuse Israel of targeting the school. He continues to rail against Israel, recently demanding that there was a need to establish accountability “for why the Israeli air force hit infrastructure of the state of Palestine rather than the infrastructure of terror, whatever that may be.”
The Globe and Mail quotes Ging as stating, “Those in the school were all families seeking refuge. … There’s nowhere safe in Gaza”. He also continues to condemn Israel’s behavior, asserting, “The state of Israel still has to answer for that. What did they know and what care did they take?”
Since it now appears that UNRWA’s Fakhoury school was not shelled and that all the fatalities and most of the casualties occurred outside the school grounds, it is also a fair question to ask of Ging and Gunness, what did they know and when did they know it? Why did they continue to make public pronouncements that only helped perpetuate the misperception that Israel had shelled the school rather than clarifying that Israel had shelled a street near the school?