Israel confirms mortar strike on UN school in Gaza, denies casualties

A Palestinian mother comforts her child in a hospital a few hundred meters from where medics said Israeli shelling hit a U.N-run school sheltering Palestinian refugees, in Beit Hanoun the northern Gaza Strip July 24, 2014.(Reuters / Finbarr O'Reilly)RT

Israel has confirmed that it unintentionally hit a UN school in Gaza last week, but denies reports that anyone was killed in the incident, claiming the courtyard area was empty when the strike took place. Palestinian officials say 16 people were killed.

Around 200 others were injured, according to Palestinian officials, as three Israeli tank shells hit the Ashraf al-Qidra school in the town of Beit Hanoun last Thursday. Women, children, and UN staff were reportedly among those killed during the shelling.  

Israeli army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said that the shell that hit the school was not fired intentionally.

“A single errant mortar [round] landed in the courtyard of the school,” he told journalists during a briefing. “The courtyard was completely empty” at the time of the incident, he said, referring to aerial footage.

The Israeli army was responding to militants “in the vicinity” of the school, who fired mortar rounds and anti-tank rockets at Israeli soldiers, Lerner added.

“We reject the claims that were made by various officials immediately following the incident, that people were killed in the school premises as a result of [the Israeli army’s] operational activity,” he added. It is“extremely unlikely that anybody was killed as a result of this mortar.”

The spokesperson claimed that the victims might have been wounded elsewhere and were “brought to the compound after injury” for help.

Meanwhile, the commander of Civil Defense in Gaza, Saed al-Saoudi, said on Sunday that “all the testimonies of the wounded, witnesses, paramedics and doctors confirm that the Israeli shells are the cause of this massacre.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed outrage and horror at the tragedy.

“Many have been killed – including women and children,” Ban said in a statement on Thursday.

“I am appalled by the news of an attack on an UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) school in Northern Gaza where hundreds of people had taken refuge,”he added.

The school was being used to shelter hundreds of Palestinians displaced by the conflict. UNRWA has called for a full investigation into the incident.

“It is important in a case like this where a UN school in which hundreds of people took refuge is hit in this way, that there should be full transparency and accountability,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told AP.

Gunness added that the school was clearly marked as a UN shelter, and that the Israeli army had been made aware of its location.

The fighting between Israel and Palestine has been ongoing since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8. The overall death toll from the conflict has climbed to over 1,000.

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