Middle East Crisis: Israel Defends Strike on U.N. School Complex Where Thousands Sheltered

By The New York Times (World News) | Created at 2024-06-07 10:20:12 | Updated at 2024-06-17 00:36:52 1 week ago
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Relatives retrieving the body of someone killed on Thursday in an Israeli strike on a U.N. school complex in central Gaza.Credit...Eyad Baba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Facing international criticism of its conduct of the war and its latest strike on a U.N. school building being used as a shelter in central Gaza, the Israeli military offered a full-throated defense of the operation, insisting late Thursday that its forces had targeted a group of about 30 militants using three classrooms as a base.

After Palestinian health officials said that civilians had been killed in the attack Thursday morning, a military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said Israel had carried out “a precise, intelligence-based strike” against “dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists hiding inside a U.N. school.” He said some of the militants had participated in the attacks against Israel on Oct. 7.

Admiral Hagari said the strike in Nuseirat took place after “three days of surveillance” and was designed to destroy three specific classrooms in the school where the Israeli military believed roughly 30 militants were staying and planning operations.

The precise toll could not be verified, but the Gaza Health Ministry said that about 40 people had been killed in the attack, including 14 children and nine women. Later Thursday, The Associated Press reported different numbers, saying that at least 33 people had died, including three women and nine children, citing the hospital morgue. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy. A visit to the hospital by The New York Times on Thursday indicated that civilians, including children, were among the dead.

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The aftermath of an Israeli strike on a school complex in central Gaza, on Thursday.Credit...Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

Palestinian and U.N. officials said that thousands of people had sought shelter at the school complex. Admiral Hagari said that Israel had twice delayed the strike because it had identified civilians in the area.

“The terrorists inside the school were planning more attacks against Israelis, some of them imminent,” he said. “We stopped a ticking time bomb.”

In an effort to support its contention the strike was on a military target, the Israeli military released the names of nine people killed in the attack that it said were associated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Two of those named were associated with Hamas and seven with Islamic Jihad, according to the Israeli military. Admiral Hagari said the military was working on identifying others.

It is a crime under international law to intentionally target civilians who are not participating in the hostilities, but the rules do allow for “incidental” and “involuntary” damage — including civilian deaths — if they are deemed proportional, meaning that incidental damage can’t be excessive compared to the military advantage gained. Experts say that is a somewhat ambiguous standard that is open to interpretation.

The United Nations human rights office said in a statement that the Israeli strike in Nuseirat “suggests a failure” by the military to “ensure strict compliance with international humanitarian law, particularly the basic principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack.” The office added that even if armed Palestinians were using the school as a base of operations, as Israel claims, it would not “justify violations of these principles.”

Reprising an argument Israel has used throughout the war, Admiral Hagari accused Hamas of embedding its fighters among civilians and using them as shields. He said the militant’s strategy of hiding inside U.N. facilities was itself a war crime.

“Hamas wages war from schools and hospitals,” he said. “Hamas hopes the international law and public sympathy will provide a shield for their military activities, which is why they systematically operate from schools, U.N. facilities, hospitals, and mosques.”

John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, said in an interview with CNN on Thursday, said that Israel “absolutely” has a right to target Hamas and that it is known that its fighters “shelter in civilian facilities,” but noted that this does not give Israel carte blanche. He said that U.S. officials were discussing the strike with Israeli authorities and have not independently verified what happened. “We are asking for more information, more context,” Mr. Kirby said.

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Gazans mourning the dead after an Israeli airstrike Thursday in Nuseirat.Credit...Bashar Taleb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As dawn broke on Thursday, Haitham Abu Ammar combed through the rubble of the school that had become a shelter to him and thousands of other displaced Gazans. For hours, he helped people piece together the limbs of the ones they loved.

“The most painful thing I have ever experienced was picking up those pieces of flesh with my hands,” said Mr. Abu Ammar, a 27-year-old construction worker. “I never thought I would have to do such a thing.”

Early on Thursday, Israeli airstrikes hit the school complex, killing dozens of people — among them at least nine militants, the Israeli military said.

Over the course of the day, corpses and mangled limbs recovered from the rubble were wrapped in blankets, stacked in truck beds and driven to Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, the last major medical facility still operating in central Gaza.

Israel’s military described the airstrike as painstakingly planned. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told reporters that Israeli forces had tracked the militants in the school-turned-shelter for three days before opening fire.

“The Israeli military and the Shin Bet found a solution to separate the terrorists from those seeking shelter,” he said.

But accounts from both local and foreign medics, and a visit to the hospital by The New York Times on Thursday afternoon, made clear that civilians died, too.

Outside the hospital morgue, crowds gathered to weep and pray over the dead. Hospital corridors were crowded with people pleading for help, or at least a little comfort.

A young girl with a bloodied leg screamed, “Mama! Mama!”, as her sobbing mother followed her through the hospital corridors.

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Palestinians taking in the damage from the airstrike.Credit...Bashar Taleb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The precise toll could not be verified, but the Gaza Health Ministry said that of the roughly 40 people killed in the attack, 14 were children and nine were women. Later in the day, The Associated Press reported different numbers, saying at least 33 people died, including three women and nine children, citing the hospital morgue.

Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital has become a symbol not just of the heavy loss of life in central Gaza, but also of the increasing sense of desperation among Gazans struggling to find a place there that is still safe.

In the past few weeks, the region has swelled with people fleeing another Israeli offensive, this one in the southern city of Rafah. Before that offensive began, Rafah was the main place of refuge for civilians, at one point holding more than half the population of the Gaza Strip.

Then on Wednesday, Israel announced that it had started a new operation against Hamas militants in central Gaza — the very place where many Gazans who had fled Rafah had ended up.

The strike on the school complex came early the next day, around 2 a.m. It hit a building at a complex run by UNRWA, the main U.N. Palestinian aid agency in Gaza.

Since the Israeli offensive in Gaza began in October, in retaliation for a Hamas-led attack on Israel, such schools have been used to shelter Gazans forced from their homes by the fighting. Israel says Hamas hides its forces in civilian settings like schools or hospitals, an accusation the group denies.

In the past two days of the new military campaign, Al Aqsa took in 140 dead and hundreds of wounded, health workers said.

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A Palestinian woman at the hospital holding the hand of a boy said to have been killed in the strike.Credit...Eyad Baba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It’s complete chaos, because we have mass casualty after mass casualty, but less and less medical supplies to treat them,” said Karin Huster, a nurse with the international aid group Doctors Without Borders who has been working at the hospital.

During the visit to Al Aqsa by The Times, medics could be seen pushing through crowds of panicked people to try to reach operating rooms, delayed by the sheer mass of people. Amid the confusion, Ms. Huster said, medics sometimes brought mortally wounded people into operating rooms, wasting vital time for those who still had a chance at survival.

Ms. Huster said that the majority of people she had treated in the past few days were women and children.

By early afternoon Thursday, after burying a friend he pulled from the rubble of the school complex, Mr. Abu Ammar found himself once again at the hospital.

This time, he was accompanied by the friend’s brother, whom he was trying to cram into a hallway near the entrance. The brother’s face was cut by shrapnel, and he had a deep gash in his right leg.

But he was not the only one desperate for help.

All around them were wounded people, some lying in their own blood on the floor, others on beds calling for help. A man whose face was blackened with burns and dust from the explosion that morning begged two relatives who were with him to fan his face with a piece of cardboard they were waving over him.

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Clearing rubble at the school complex after the strike.Credit...Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

The scenes among the dead in the morgue were almost as chaotic as those among the living. Bodies lay everywhere, as relatives crowded in, weeping and screaming over them. The stench of blood was overpowering.

Crowds outside the morgue ebbed and flowed as bodies wrapped in blankets — shrouds were in short supply — were lifted onto pickup trucks to be taken for burial. Relatives and friends lined up to pray before the dead were driven away. Even passers-by on the street stopped to join in.

“When is it too much?” Ms. Huster said. “I don’t know anymore how I can phrase this so that it shocks people. Where has humanity gone wrong?”

Bilal Shbair and Erika Solomon Bilal Shbair reported from central Gaza

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel will address a joint meeting of Congress in July.Credit...Gil Cohen-Magen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel will address a joint meeting of Congress on July 24, the top two congressional Republicans announced on Thursday night.

Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, said in a statement that the speech would offer Mr. Netanyahu the opportunity to “share the Israeli government’s vision for defending their democracy, combating terror, and establishing just and lasting peace in the region.”

But in a separate statement that hinted at the deep political divides over Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s war in Gaza, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said he harbored “clear and profound disagreements with the prime minister, which I have voiced both privately and publicly and will continue to do so.” He said he nevertheless had joined the request for Mr. Netanyahu to address Congress because “America’s relationship with Israel is ironclad and transcends one person or prime minister.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Schumer called for Mr. Netanyahu to step down and for Israel to hold new elections.

The bipartisan invitation to Mr. Netanyahu, issued last month by the top four congressional leaders with no date attached, masked a fraught behind-the-scenes debate over receiving him. The need for separate statements from the leaders of the two parties explaining their different rationales for extending the invitation underscored those tensions.

Some progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have already promised to boycott the speech, calling Mr. Netanyahu a “war criminal” for his tactics in the war against Hamas, which has killed tens of thousands of people in Gaza and caused a humanitarian disaster.

Republicans, in contrast, are eager to hug Mr. Netanyahu close and unequivocally back his policies. Mr. Johnson has been the driving force behind the invitation.

“I am very moved to have the privilege of representing Israel before both houses of Congress and to present the truth about our just war against those who seek to destroy us to the representatives of the American people and the entire world,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement accepting the invitation.

Annie Karni Reporting from Washington

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A woman carrying an injured child on Thursday, at the site of an Israeli strike on a former school in central Gaza.Credit...Abed Khaled/Reuters

The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has given rise to continual accusations by each side that the other is violating international law and guilty of war crimes.

Both sides are trying to make their case in the court of public opinion by stressing principles that apply to war in courts of law.

The most recent instance came when the Israeli military on Thursday struck a former United Nations school in Nuseirat, in central Gaza, where civilians were sheltering. The strike killed dozens, including women and children, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. Hamas called it “a crime committed with premeditation,” in a statement on social media.

An Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said the operation was limited and aimed precisely at combatants. He said Israel targeted three specific classrooms in the school that were being used by terrorists, including some involved in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel led by Hamas, and noted that the military waited for days before striking to try to limit civilian casualties.

The Israeli army late Thursday released the names of nine members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad that it said were killed in the strike, adding that it was working on verifying others. Admiral Hagari accused Hamas of violating international law by using civilians as shields and hiding in schools and hospitals, and he emphasized Israel’s adherence to international law.

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Israel’s military said the attack had targeted Hamas operatives, but Palestinian officials said it had killed civilians.Credit...Bashar Taleb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The main legal considerations when assessing a military’s conduct in conflict are “distinction” and “proportionality,” according to Gary D. Solis, a retired Marine and Marine judge advocate, and author of “The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War.”

International humanitarian law began developing in the 19th century with a treaty on prisoners of war that paved the path for the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and subsequent agreements governing conduct in conflict. These were widely adopted, and they try to ensure minimal civilian casualties and damage. The principles governing conduct, like distinction and proportionality, have developed through court cases and become customary law, but they are complicated and subject to interpretation, Mr. Solis said.

“Distinction” simply requires soldiers to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants and to target only fighters. “But that doesn’t say how you apply it,” Mr. Solis said. “It’s not a black and white conclusion. You don’t have bright line distinctions.”

“Proportionality” is similarly complex. “It’s easier to state than understand,” Mr. Solis said. This principle provides that combatants must act proportionally, meaning that civilian deaths and damage can’t exceed the military advantage of an operation.

What is an acceptable number of deaths and damage, and what is excessive? What is the right amount of “military advantage?” There is no single answer, Mr. Solis said. Speaking generally, he said, an army cannot level a town to kill 10 enemy soldiers, but perhaps it could strike a single house for that many.

“Every case has to be examined on its own merits,” Mr. Solis counseled. “Don’t be dismayed if you can’t put your finger on it, because by their very nature the principles are flexible, not fixed.”

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CreditCredit...Emad Abu Shawiesh, via Storyful

At least one bomb used in the Israeli strike that killed dozens of people, including women and children, in a United Nations school building on Thursday appeared to have been made in the United States, according to a weapons expert and videos reviewed by The New York Times.

The school, located in Nuseirat, in central Gaza, was being used as a shelter for thousands of displaced Palestinians. The Israeli military said it had targeted classrooms that were occupied by Palestinian militants, though it did not provide evidence for this claim.

A video of munitions debris, filmed by the Palestinian journalist Emad Abu Shawiesh, shows remnants of a GBU-39 bomb, which is designed and manufactured by Boeing. The use of this weapon in the strike was first reported by CNN.

The footage was uploaded to Instagram shortly after 4 a.m. in Gaza on Thursday, about two and a half hours after the strike was reported on Telegram, a messaging app. The Times, using details seen in videos, confirmed the weapon debris was filmed at the U.N. school.

Trevor Ball, a former U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal technician, identified the part of the weapon seen in the footage as the nose of a GBU-39. “This distinct nose is unique to the GBU-39 munition series, and, due to its solid construction, it can survive the blast intact,” he said.

The holes visible across several floors of the U.N. compound also suggest the use of a smaller precision-guided munition like the GBU-39, Mr. Ball added.

The school was previously attacked on May 14, when Israel said that it had killed 15 militants there; it is possible that some of the damage or even the GBU-39 nose tip seen on Thursday could have been left by that strike. But multiple videos filmed in the aftermath of the strike showed mattresses, clothes and cans of food covered in rubble near the strike zone in one of the classrooms, indicating the damage was new. In one of these videos, a man can be seen recovering body parts of those who were killed and holding up a severed finger to the camera.

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A hole can be seen in the ceiling of a classroom in a U.N. school complex in central Gaza that housed thousands of displaced Palestinians, after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike on Thursday. The hole is consistent with the use of a smaller precision-guided munition made by the United States.Credit...Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Israeli military said its fighter jets had targeted three classrooms in a school building that held 20 to 30 Palestinian militants affiliated with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller militia also backed by Iran. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, claimed the militants had used the compound to plan attacks on Israeli forces, although he did not provide specific examples.

The compound that was hit had been operated by UNRWA, the main U.N. body that aids Palestinians in Gaza. Philippe Lazzarini, the director of UNRWA, wrote on social media that 6,000 Palestinians had been sheltering in the school complex.

Khalil Daqran, a spokesman for Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the central Gaza city of Deir al Balah, said the bodies of at least 40 people killed in the attack had been brought to the hospital. At least some of the victims were women, children and older people, he added, although he declined to provide a precise figure.

Colonel Lerner, the Israeli military spokesman, said he was “not aware of any civilian casualties” as a result of the strike.

U.S. officials have been encouraging the Israeli military for months to use GBU-39s, which weigh at least 250 pounds, rather than larger 2,000-pound bombs because they are generally more precise. But this is the second time in less than two weeks that dozens of Palestinians have been killed by this specific type of bomb. On May 26, 45 people were killed in another camp for displaced people, also by GBU-39 bombs.

Wes Bryant, a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant and targeting expert who served on a task force critical of Israel’s use of weapons in Gaza, told The Times that the precision and low-collateral intent of these bombs were undermined if not used correctly.

“While they’re using smaller bombs, they’re still deliberately targeting where they know there are civilians,” Mr. Bryant said. “The only thing they’ve done in going down from 2,000-pound bombs to 250-pound bombs is killing a few less civilians.”

Nader Ibrahim contributed reporting. Ainara Tiefenthäler contributed video production.

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The N.A.A.C.P. announcement tightens the political bind President Biden finds himself in as he pushes for a cease-fire to end the war while continuing to provide support for a longtime U.S. ally.Credit...Kenny Holston/The New York Times

The N.A.A.C.P., the oldest and largest civil rights group in the nation, called on Thursday for President Biden to “draw the red line” and halt weapons shipments to Israel over the mounting civilian death toll in its war in Gaza.

In a rare foray into foreign policy, the influential organization added to the mounting pressure from Black leaders on Mr. Biden to stop aiding Israel’s war in Gaza. Its warning comes as Mr. Biden tries to shore up softening support among Black Americans, a constituency that was crucial in catapulting him to the White House in 2020 and that he will need to win his re-election bid in November.

In its statement, the N.A.A.C.P. called on Mr. Biden to “draw the red line and indefinitely end the shipment of weapons and artillery” to Israel and any states that supply weapons to terrorist organizations, including Hamas.

“The Middle East conflict will only be resolved when the U.S. government and international community take action, including limiting access to weapons used against civilians,” the statement said.

The N.A.A.C.P.’s announcement came the same day that an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza killed dozens of people at a United Nations school complex that had become a shelter for thousands of displaced Palestinians.

It tightens the political bind Mr. Biden finds himself in as he pushes for a cease-fire to end the war while continuing to provide support for a longtime U.S. ally. He has recently withheld some offensive weapons from Israel and has threatened to hold back more, but has also made clear that he will continue to supply defense systems and arms that aid in Israel’s “ability to respond to attacks” like one Iran launched in April.

The narrow path he is trying to walk has elicited opposition, with some progressive members of his party accusing him of aiding in a slaughter while Republicans and some pro-Israel Democrats criticize his decisions to hold up any weapons.

Though not seen as the most pressing election-year issue, the U.S. support for the war in Gaza has become a flashpoint in the Black community, which has long empathized with the plight of the Palestinians. Earlier this year, more than 1,000 Black pastors representing hundreds of thousands of congregants nationwide issued a demand for Mr. Biden to call for a cease-fire.

Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said the statement came amid growing concerns among its members about the civilian death toll, particularly young Black people and faith leaders.

“We come from a community that has endured historical trauma, attacks, intimidation,” Mr. Johnson said. “And so when you see our young people, particularly who’ve heard the stories of grandparents and great-grandparents, there’s a lot of concerns. And these are the same individuals that we have to get out to the polls in November.”

The war, which started in response to Hamas’s killing 1,200 Israelis and taking more than 200 hostages on Oct. 7, has so far killed more than 36,000 people in Gaza, according to health authorities there. The humanitarian conditions in Gaza have also grown dire, with most Palestinians there displaced and aid groups warning of a famine.

In its statement, the N.A.A.C.P. referred to recent events in which Israeli forces attacked a refugee camp in the densely populated southern Gaza city of Rafah that killed 45 people, including women and children, over Memorial Day weekend.

The group also called on Hamas to “return the hostages and stop all terrorist activity,” and on Israel to “commit to an offensive strategy that is aligned with international and humanitarian laws.”

“Our job is not to take a side in the war,” Mr. Johnson said. “Our job is to say civilians should not be harmed, and we need to de-escalate so that we could ensure that the rise of hate that’s taking place in this country would not be a part of what’s taking place globally.”

The organization said Mr. Biden’s announcement last week of a proposal to end the war with a cease-fire and a return of hostages fell short. The N.A.A.C.P. said the “proposal must clarify the consequences of continued violence.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The N.A.A.C.P. is nonpartisan but plays a critical role in mobilizing Black Americans to the polls, a crucial part of Mr. Biden’s win in 2020. It is also influential in the White House.

Mr. Biden has long held the group in high regard. Last month, he hosted its officials at the White House to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed school segregation. He also gave the keynote address at the organization’s annual dinner, where he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mr. Biden began his remarks at the dinner by saying, “My name is Joe Biden, and I’m a lifetime member of the N.A.A.C.P.” He said it was the first organization he ever joined.

“Let’s be clear,” he later said. “Because of your vote, it’s the only reason I’m standing here as president of the United States of America. Period.”

Erica L. Green Reporting from Washington

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