spokesperson for the the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
At least 16 people were killed and more than 200 injured Thursday when a school used as a United Nations shelter came under fire in Gaza. Palestinian families displaced by the assault had reportedly gathered to move to a safer area when the school was hit. Palestinian officials have blamed Israeli tank shelling, while Israel has suggested militant rockets were at fault. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has declined to directly accuse Israel, but says it gave the school’s coordinates to the Israeli army numerous times. "Within Gaza, there is no safe place," says Christopher Gunness, UNRWA spokesperson. "If the parties to this conflict have shown themselves callous enough to be able to hit a clearly designated, clearly marked U.N. compound where hundreds of people have come to take sanctuary, we cannot guarantee anymore the safety of our installations." Gunness says the number of people now seeking shelter amidst the violence has swelled to 150,000.
AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, at least 16 people were killed, more than 200 injured, when a U.N.-run school used as a shelter came under fire in Gaza. Palestinian families were in the school in Beit Hanoun fleeing Israel’s offensive against Hamas militants. The director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, Robert Turner, said the coordinates of the school had been given to the Israeli army numerous times.
ROBERT TURNER: This school was a designated emergency shelter, which meant that we had given the Israeli authorities, the IDF, the coordinates of this school on 12 separate occasions, most recently 10:56 this morning. They were fully aware that this was a shelter. We knew that the situation in Beit Hanoun was deteriorating from a security standpoint. So over the course of the day, we had been trying to coordinate a window, a period during which we could withdraw our staff, and any displaced people who choose to go to a safer location would be able to leave. We were never conferred that window, that time period.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, Robert Turner. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the shelling of the school in Gaza Thursday.
SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: I was shocked and appalled by what has happened in the Beit Hanoun UNRWA school. It’s totally unacceptable. I have condemned it strongly. We are now at the 16th day, and tomorrow will be 17th day. During those days, Secretary Kerry and I and many world leaders have been working tirelessly to bring this unacceptable, intolerable situation to an end as soon as possible. We have not yet reached there.
AMY GOODMAN: That was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. To talk more about this attack, we’re joined by Christopher Gunness, the spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, for Palestine Refugees.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe what you understand happened.
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, we made the—we gave the GPS coordinates, the precise GPS coordinates of a U.N.-designated school—it had a blue U.N. flag on the top of it—to the Israeli army over a period of hours. We appealed to them, we begged them, we pleaded with them to allow a humanitarian pause, a window of opportunity, so that women, children, men, civilians, the sick, the elderly, babies, the dying could be let out of the conflict zone. We appealed desperately. We explained the situation at the school. But no answer came back that was positive. In the end, we could not do that civilian evacuation, and the consequences of that were absolutely tragic. The carnage, the pitiless carnage that you saw on your screens yesterday, was the result.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what it is—who was in there? How many refugees had taken shelter in this school?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, let me break some news here. The number of people sheltering with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza has now gone over 150,000. That’s fast approaching 10 percent of the population in Gaza. These are desperate, traumatized people who had fled from their homes in response to the dramatically escalating Israeli ground offensive. They are in areas in schools where buildings were meant to accommodate a thousand students or so a day coming in in the morning, leaving in the afternoon. They’re now overrun with people who are staying there 24/7, some for the 17th day.
There’s a desperate need for sanitation, for water. Don’t forget that because of the blockade of Gaza, 95 percent of the water is undrinkable. So, in these designated shelters, you turn on the water, turn on the taps, and salt water comes out. So we have to truck in every single liter of water to 150,000 people. That’s just the water. There’s food, as well, that we need to bring in, mattresses, sanitation equipment—all sorts of things that people staying in these shelters—frankly, in a war zone—desperately need.
And now it seems that there is nowhere safe in Gaza. We’ve been hit, and it seems that every single one of our over 80 shelters, all 150,000 of those individual lives taking shelter with us, are today at risk.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Israeli military saying that perhaps this was a Hamas rocket that hit the UNRWA shelter?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, Qassam rockets are notoriously inaccurate. So the idea that within a few minutes a group of Qassam rockets could hit roughly the same area seems beyond miraculous. But if that’s what the Israeli army and military spokesman and others, like Mr. Regev, were saying, that’s fine. But, you know, it’s perhaps useful to ask them why it is that weapons, when they fly into Israel, it’s said that they’re completely inaccurate; apparently they can all land in roughly the same space within a matter of minutes yesterday in Beit Hanoun. I think that needs some kind of unpacking.
AMY GOODMAN: And why people come to this school, the Palestinians? Who were these Palestinians who came to the school in Beit Hanoun?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: These are ordinary residents of the areas around Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. That area had been particularly affected by the Israeli ground incursion, so—offensive. So these are people who had been traumatically and dramatically affected. They had left their homes. Many of these are refugees already, dispossessed, stateless people. And they fled their homes, many of them under fire, grabbing their children, grabbing whatever possessions they could take as they ran. These are deeply scarred people. There are scars you can see and scars you can’t see. And I fear that the scars you can’t see are considerably deeper than the scars you can. And, you know, let us be mindful of the appalling scars we saw yesterday.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, UNRWA issued a press release saying rockets had been discovered for the second time in one of its schools. According to the press release, the vacant school is situated between two other UNRWA schools that currently each accommodate something like 1,500 refugees, internally displaced persons. The release also said that because staff were immediately evacuated, the number of rockets could not be confirmed. Can you clarify, Christopher Gunness?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Absolutely. What happened was we discovered that there was a cache of rockets. Now these are notoriously unstable devices, so we immediately evacuated the school, and we put a guard on the gate. What happened—and we began consultations, by the way, to find international experts that would be capable of making these weapons safe. What happened was, overnight, a group of refugees attempted to flee and break into the school. So we, of course, had to go back into the school. And at that point, we discovered that the weapons had gone missing. We notified all the relevant parties. We notified, in particular, the office of the secretary-general. There has now been a major review. The secretary-general has ordered that U.N. Security and the United Nations Mines Action Service are involved. So there’s now a root-and-branch review of exactly what happened. There are international experts on the way.
And, of course, the hope is that we don’t have a situation where militant groups are able to go into mutual U.N. compounds and hide these weapons. We came out very strongly in condemning them. We have been very clear that this is a flagrant violation of the neutrality of U.N. premises. And we’ve called on those groups or groups or militants—we’ve demanded that this should never happen again. It is imperative that the parties, that all warring parties to this conflict, respect the sanctity of civilian life, the inviolability of United Nations property and compounds, and that there is respect under and according to international humanitarian law for the protection of international workers, because if that is not respected, look at the appalling, pitiless consequences that we saw yesterday—that callous attack, that callous shelling, should I say. We’re not saying who did it, but we want an investigation. We need to find out irrefutably who was responsible.
AMY GOODMAN: To be clear, that U.N. school yesterday that was attacked, where 16 people were killed, hundreds wounded, was not the one you’re talking about where there were rockets inside.
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: No, Amy, absolutely right. The places where the weapons caches have been found were schools which had been closed down for the summer. These schools were regularly inspected by UNRWA, and it was in the course of these regular inspections that the weapons were discovered. These were not places where refugees had taken shelter. And to be clear, there is absolutely no evidence that there were rockets in the school that was hit yesterday or indeed that there were militants in the school firing rockets. And indeed, throughout the last conflict, Cast Lead, in 2008, 2009, or should I say the one before last, although Israeli spokespeople made accusations that there were militants in UNRWA compounds, not a jot of evidence was ever produced to substantiate these false and very damaging allegations against the United Nations.
AMY GOODMAN: Other schools during this conflict, other U.N. schools that are serving as shelters for hundreds, for thousands of people, have they been hit?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: They have. In the last week, there have been three direct hits by incoming Israeli air fire onto two of our installations, our schools, where in one case about a thousand displaced people were taking shelter. Five people were injured. In another place, 300 people were taking shelter, and one small girl was injured. And by the way, Amy, when we went back to investigate that, we cleared a two-hour window in which a clearly marked U.N. vehicle could go back. We cleared that with the Israeli army. When we were there, there was further incoming fire, and one of my colleagues nearly lost his life. This highlights the need for the parties to abide by their obligations under international law.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you hearing of a ceasefire? And what do you think needs to happen, Christopher Gunness?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: We are a humanitarian organization, and we don’t have a seat at that ceasefire talks. What we do is deal with and we mitigate the effects of the failure of the politicians and the peacemakers. We pray that there will not be failure. We are hearing what you are hearing, that Eid will bring with it perhaps some kind of cessation of hostilities. I have no special information on that. But I can tell you that the 150,000 people taking shelter in our schools, all of them potentially victims of what we saw in Beit Hanoun yesterday, are trembling, are fearful, are traumatized and are desperately hoping that that ceasefire will indeed hold.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you tell Palestinian refugees who are leaving their homes, who are told, instructed by the Israeli military, with calls, with pamphlets that are dropped—where do you tell them to go, if they’re bombed when they go to the designated shelters?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: It’s up to individuals to make their own autonomous choices. It sounds irresponsible, but frankly, we can’t say. For a start, Gaza has a fence around it. It’s unique in the annals of contemporary warfare in being a conflict which has a fence around it, so there is nowhere to run. But even within Gaza, there is no safe place. If the parties to this conflict have shown themselves callous enough to be able to hit a clearly designated, clearly marked U.N. compound, where hundreds of people have come to take safe sanctuary, we cannot guarantee anymore the safety, the safe sanctuary of our installations. It is utterly appalling that in a war zone today, with so many United Nations-assisted beneficiaries, so many U.N.-designated safe shelters, that this sort of thing is happening. It is appalling. It is condemnable. And it has to stop. Enough civilians, enough women, enough children, enough young men who are not involved in the conflict, the elderly, the sick, the dying—they have suffered enough. Enough is enough.
AMY GOODMAN: And your response to the Israeli military saying they’re engaged in precision bombings; Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields?
CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Well, if precision bombing has led to a situation where the majority of those killed are civilians, one has to ask just how precise those precision bombings are.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as UNRWA. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. An UNRWA facility, a shelter, has been hit in the last 24 hours, 16 Palestinians killed, hundreds wounded.