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2009-01-07

40+ Killed in Israeli Strike on Gaza School Sheltering Refugees

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In the deadliest attack since Israel launched its assault on Gaza twelve days ago, up to forty-two Palestinians died on Tuesday after Israel fired mortars at a United Nations school that was sheltering Palestinians who had been forced to flee their homes. Fifty-five Palestinians were also wounded in the attack. Doctors said all of the victims were civilians, including many children. We speak with Christopher Gunness of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tuesday marked one of the deadliest days in Gaza since Israel’s offensive began twelve days ago, with more than 130 people killed in bombings and mortar fire. In the bloodiest attack, at least forty Palestinians died after Israel fired mortars at a United Nations school that was housing refugees. Fifty-five Palestinians were wounded. Doctors said all the victims were civilians, including many children.

Israel admitted to firing mortar rounds at the school but claimed its actions were justified because Hamas militants were using the school to fire rockets. But the UN said there were no militants at the school.

As many as 680 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its offensive on December 27th. Over 3,000 Palestinians have been injured. The Israeli death toll stands at ten, including four Israeli soldiers who died in so-called friendly fire incidents.

Meanwhile, Israel announced it would halt all attacks near Gaza City for three hours a day in order to establish a humanitarian corridor. Aid agencies have warned of a mounting humanitarian crisis for the one-and-a-half million Palestinians in Gaza who are unable to escape because of Israel’s blockade. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate ceasefire to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

    BAN KI-MOON: I call once again for an immediate ceasefire. In the midst of this fighting, the civilian population of Gaza faces a humanitarian crisis. Entire families have perished in the violence, including women and children, UN staff and medical workers. There are no shelters for the vast majority of the civilian population. Food and fuel supplies are insufficient. A million people have no electricity. A quarter of a million have no running water. The only answer is an end to the violence. Whatever the rationale of the combatants, only an end to violence and a political way forward, can deliver long-term security and peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Pressure is building on Israel and Hamas to accept a ceasefire deal backed by the United Nations and the United States. The plan, proposed by Egypt and France, calls for an immediate ceasefire.

We’re going to go now to Gaza to speak with Christopher Gunness. He’s a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City. We’ll go to break and come back to speak with the UN representative. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We have just lost the UN spokesperson in Gaza. We’re going to try to get him back later on the broadcast, but right now we’re going to turn to President Obama’s cabinet. [...]

We have just gotten Christopher Gunness back on the line, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA.

Can you give us the latest? Yesterday, we spoke to you when news was just breaking about two schools hit by Israeli fire in Gaza. What do you understand at this point, Christopher Gunness?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, at the Jabalya school, we have done an initial investigation into what took place. We are 99.9 percent certain there were no militants in the school or the compound. There was no militant activity in the school or in the school compound. If anybody, including the Israeli army, anybody, has any evidence that there were people abusing our premises, we want to know. We want to find out what went on. It’s in our interest to make sure that militants do not abuse our facilities. But we’re 99.9 percent certain that yesterday there were no militants and no militant activity. And there is some question for the Israeli army about was this activity in the vicinity of the compound or in the compound. And that’s more clarification that we need, because if it was in the streets outside, that, of course, is different from if they were in the compound itself.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us who was in the school, where the — well, what is the casualty figure you have at this point?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, first of all, for the attack at Jabalya, we said yesterday thirty confirmed fatalities and fifty-five injured, including fifteen critically. Very sadly, overnight, ten people passed away. The fatality figure has now risen from thirty to forty. The people in the compound, over 1,300 people — by the way, some of those, many of them had been told by the Israeli army to leave their houses and move to a safe place. Of course, Gaza is unique in being a war with a fence around it. But they nonetheless came — frightened, terrified, vulnerable — to our center. They were coming to what they thought was a neutral United Nations shelter, and then the rest is history, forty people killed.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about this school. A school for who?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: A school for young children. It’s one of over twenty centers that we’ve set up as shelters. We had given the Israeli army the exact GPS coordinates of this building well before the conflict. We gave them the coordinates of all of our facilities in Gaza. The schools are clearly marked, like any school anywhere in the world. The famous blue UN colors. And, in addition, a third source of where the school was in being clearly marked and all that, one assumes that when an army is doing house-to-house fighting in an area like this, it’s got more detailed maps than anybody about which building is what. So, you know, three sources — GPS coordinates, the fact that it was marked and, one assumes, very accurate IDF maps — to suggest that the IDF knew exactly what this building was.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the other school that we talked about yesterday? There were two different schools.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, there was an attack at a school called Asma a couple of nights back at 11:30 at night, when three refugees went out into the compound of the school. They actually went to the toilet block in order to, you know, use the facilities. On their way back at 11:30 at night, there was a direct strike on the school compound, and they were killed, tragically, in that.

So, again, we’re calling for an impartial investigation. We want the facts to come out. We want accountability. If anyone is accused of violating international humanitarian law, then we want an impartial investigation, and we want those found guilty of violating IHL to be brought to justice, because ultimately a sense of justice will be one of the many elements of the bedrocks of future and durable peace. So, justice — we need justice, even though that sounds crazy as the guns are still blazing in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not clear whether the attack on the Jabalya refugee camp school has led to Israel changing its position. And I want to ask Christopher Gunness of UNRWA if you see them changing their position at all in saying they’re going to open a, quote, "humanitarian corridor" for three hours a day. What does that mean?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, I can’t tell you what changed the mind of Mr. Olmert. You need to ask him himself. What I would say was that the humanitarian corridor idea reinforces the idea of a lasting peace, because when you’re feeding on an ongoing basis 750,000 people a three-hour window each day, just is not enough. And also, let me make the point that you can get the food from our warehouses, if you’re lucky, to our distribution centers in Gaza down this humanitarian corridor. The reason we want a lasting peace is because people who have been bombed for the last twelve days have got to leave their shelters, leave warehouses and go and walk through the streets and pick up their food from the food distribution centers. A humanitarian corridor, in and of itself, is not enough. People have to feel secure enough to leave their houses and go and pick up this food. And that’s why we say we want a lasting and permanent ceasefire.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the situation right now on the ground in Gaza?

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, big picture, it’s terrible. I mean, you’ve got one million people without electricity. You’ve got a quarter-million people without running water. Every hospital in the Gaza Strip is running twenty-four hours a day on an emergency generator. UNRWA has enough food supplies in Gaza for days and not weeks. By anyone’s book, I would say that’s a humanitarian crisis. And while we, of course, will use to the fullest of our ability this idea of a humanitarian corridor, it’s not enough. What we want is a permanent ceasefire.

AMY GOODMAN: And Israel is saying that this is Hamas’s fault, because they are the ones who are firing rockets into Israel, and they are the ones who are embedding themselves in the civilian population in Gaza, that they’re using Palestinians as human shields.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, I’ve not come on this program to defend Hamas. What I would say is we are the UN. We are neutral. And we are certainly not hoarding any of the food supplies. We condemn the rockets in the United Nations system. As Desmond Tutu once said to Ismail Haniyeh, these are an abomination. We’ve got to see these rockets stop.

On the other hand, we’ve got to see the fighting stop, because if it doesn’t happen, the humanitarian crisis that’s already there can only deepen, in spite of the fact that there is this humanitarian corridor idea being established. We need permanent peace, a permanent ceasefire, if people are going to leave their bombed-out shelters and come through the streets of bombed-out Gaza and pick up their supplies from our distribution center. It’s a practical matter. The idea of a humanitarian corridor naturally reinforces the concept of a permanent ceasefire.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Gunness, I want to thank you for being with us, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency. Today, he was speaking to us from Jerusalem.

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