25 January 2009
On 15 January the world watched on as towering plumes of acrid black smoke rose above the skyline of Gaza City. At the base of these looming smoke towers was the Field Office compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which had been hit by a number of IDF shells mid-morning.
UNRWA’s compound sustained a number of direct hits from IDF fire, including one or more near the warehouses, workshops and fuel tankers. Shells of white phosphorous – a highly incendiary material - set ablaze the workshop and two vast warehouses containing humanitarian food and medical supplies. Much-needed blankets, mattresses, hygiene kits, tinned meat and wheat flour went up in flames. Three vehicles were completely burnt and 15 were damaged. Approximately 6,500 square meters of warehouse space was destroyed.
By the time the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza, over five days after the initial shelling, fire and plumes of smoke were still clearly visible, smouldering behind him, as he spoke in front of the UNRWA compound.
"I am just appalled. I am not able to describe how I am feeling, having seen this site of the bombing of the United Nations compound," Ban said. "It is an outrageous and totally unacceptable attack against the United Nations. I have protested many times, and am today protesting in the strongest terms, and am condemning it. I have asked for a full investigation and to make those responsible people accountable."
At the time of the shelling, 700 civilians were sheltering in the compound, having fled the heavy fighting in Gaza City the previous night. Three people were injured. Miraculously, nobody was killed.
Two days after the shelling of the UNRWA Field Office, yet another UNRWA installation was shelled. Two young boys, aged five and seven, were killed in the shelling of the UNRWA school in Beit Lahiya. The boys had come with their family seeking shelter in the safety of UNRWA’s neutral walls. Tragically neither UNRWA’s walls nor the UN’s explicit neutrality were enough to protect them from Israeli shelling.
This was one more in a series of incidents that Ban condemned.
"Today, another United Nations school was hit by Israeli Defense Forces," said Ban speaking on 17 January. "I condemn in the strongest terms this outrageous attack which is the third time this has happened. The top Israeli leaders had apologised and had given me their assurances just two days ago while I was visiting Israel that UN premises would be fully respected. I strongly demand a thorough investigation into these incidents, and the punishment of those who are responsible for these appalling acts."
There had been two previous incidents of IDF shelling of UNRWA schools which led to loss of life of civilians seeking refuge from the fighting in Gaza in the relative safety of UNRWA’s schools. Three men were killed at Asma elementary school in Gaza City on 6 January 2009. Only a few hours later over 40 people were killed when IDF shells landed near UNRWA’s al Fakhoura school in Jabalia.
Despite initial allegations by IDF spokespeople that the IDF shelling of UNRWA’s al Fakhoura school was in response to militants firing from there, the IDF later admitted that militants had not been in the building but "in the vicinity". In response Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesperson, said:
"This is an admission that the allegations against UNRWA were totally untrue. These allegations against a neutral UN human development organisation were entirely baseless. This increases pressure for an independent investigation."
According to preliminary reports, beyond these shocking tragedies, a total of 53 UNRWA installations, mainly schools, were damaged during the 22 days of fighting in the Gaza Strip. The IDF had been supplied with the GPS coordinates of every UNRWA installation in Gaza, moreover all UN installations are clearly marked with UN insignia visible both day and night.
By the time a ceasefire was declared UNRWA was providing refuge for 50,896 civilians who had fled the violence erupting across the Gaza Strip, with 50 installations, mostly schools, turned into makeshift shelters. These civilians came to UNRWA believing that the neutrality of UNRWA as a humanitarian UN institution would be respected and that UNRWA would be able to protect them. That these shelters were not always safe havens is an extremely alarming fact.
The military targeting of UN buildings and installations is unacceptable. UN chief Ban Ki-moon has set the agenda in his call for a full and thorough investigation of this issue.