Israeli strike on UN school in Gaza reportedly kills at least 35

An Israeli air strike on a UN school packed with displaced Palestinians in central Gaza has reportedly killed at least 35 people.

Local journalists told the BBC that a warplane fired two missiles at classrooms on the top floor of the school in the urban Nuseirat refugee camp. Videos showed the destruction and a number of bodies.

Israel’s military said it had “conducted a precise strike on a Hamas compound” in the school and killed many of the 20 to 30 fighters it believed were inside.

Gaza’s Hamas-run Government Media Office denied the claim and accused Israel of carrying out a “horrific massacre”.

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa), which runs the school, described the incident as “horrific” and said the claim that armed groups might have been inside a shelter was “shocking”.

Dead and wounded people were rushed to the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital, in the nearby town of Deir al-Balah which has been overwhelmed since the Israeli military began a new ground operation against Hamas in central Gaza this week.

The circumstances of the strike in Nuseirat are still unclear and the BBC is working to verify the information coming in.

Local journalists and residents said it took place in the early hours of Thursday at al-Sardi school, which in a south-eastern Block 2 area of the densely-populated, decades-old camp, where Unrwa provides services.

The school was full of hundreds of displaced people who had fled the fighting elsewhere in Gaza, according to the residents. Many schools and other UN facilities have been used as shelters by the 1.7 million people who have fled their homes during the war, which has lasted almost eight months.

“I heard five missiles hitting the school. I went out, running, and found the fire burning in three classrooms,” Maha Issa, a woman who said she was staying at the school with her family, told the Associated Press.

“My father was directly hit by the missile, and my uncle and my two cousins were martyred.”

Videos shared on social media showed the destruction of several classrooms at the school, as well as bodies wrapped in white shrouds and blankets.

“Enough war! We have been displaced dozens of times. They killed our children while they were sleeping,” a woman injured in the attack screamed in one video.

Map showing location of UN school hit in Nuseirat refugee camp that was Israeli strike on 6 June 2024

Residents initially said that more than 20 people were killed in the attack.

Later, an official at al-Aqsa hospital told a freelance journalist working for the BBC that it had received 40 bodies from the school.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said in a statement that 40 people were killed, including 14 children and nine women, and 74 others were injured. The same death toll was given by the director of the Hamas-run Government Media Office, Ismail al-Thawabta.

Unrwa’s Commissioner General, Philippe Lazzarini, said in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, that at least 35 people were killed and many more injured. The agency’s director of communications, Juliette Touma, told the BBC that “the figures are coming from our own Unrwa colleagues on the ground”.

In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said fighter jets had conducted a “precise strike on a Hamas compound embedded inside an Unrwa school in the area of Nuseirat”. An annotated aerial photograph highlighted classrooms on two upper floors of the building, which the IDF said were the “locations of the terrorists”.

The IDF said members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad who took part in the 7 October attack on southern Israel, when around 1,200 people were killed and 251 others were taken hostage, had been operating in the building.

“Before the strike, a number of steps were taken to reduce the risk of harming uninvolved civilians during the strike, including conducting aerial surveillance, and additional intelligence information,” it added.

Later, IDF spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner told reporters that between 20 and 30 fighters had been using the school to plan and carry out attacks, and that many of them were killed in the strike. “I’m not aware of any civilian casualties and I’d be very, very cautious of accepting anything that Hamas puts out,” he added.

He also said the IDF had called off the attack twice in order to limit civilian casualties and accused Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad of deliberately using UN facilities as operational bases.

Mr Thawabta rejected the IDF’s claims, saying: “The occupation uses lying to the public opinion through false fabricated stories to justify the brutal crime it conducted against dozens of displaced people.”

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa), Philippe Lazzarini, said said the school was hit “without prior warning” to his agency or the 6,000 displaced people who were sheltering there.

“Claims that armed groups may have been inside the shelter are shocking. We are however unable to verify these claims,” he added.

“Attacking, targeting or using UN buildings for military purposes are a blatant disregard of International Humanitarian law. UN staff, premises and operations must be protected at all times.”

Mr Lazzarini complained that more than 180 Unrwa buildings had been hit since the war began despite their co-ordinates being shared with parties to the conflict, and that more than 450 displaced people had been killed as a result.

“This must stop and all those responsible must be held accountable,” he said.

At least 36,650 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched a military campaign in response to the 7 October attack, according to the territory’s health ministry, whose figures do not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

On Wednesday, the Israeli military said it had taken “operational control” over eastern areas of Bureij refugee camp – which is just west of Nuseirat – and eastern Deir al-Balah.

Residents reported intense bombardment and the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said at least 70 bodies – the majority women and children – had been brought to al-Aqsa hospital over the previous 24 hours.

AFP A man wearing a blue UN tabard inspects damage to a UN school in Nuseirat refugee camp, in central Gaza, after it was targeted in an Israeli air strike (6 June 2024)
UN schools across Gaza have been used as shelters for displaced people throughout the war

Last month, there was global outrage after an Israeli air strike which the IDF said targeted two senior Hamas officials and a resulting fire reportedly killed dozens of Palestinians at a tented camp for displaced people near a Unrwa logistics base in the southern city of Rafah.

The IDF said the loss of life was “tragic” and that it was investigating the possibility that ammunition stored by Hamas could have exploded.

That incident prompted mediators to revive their efforts to broker a ceasefire and hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas.

US President Joe Biden outlined last Friday what he described as an Israeli proposal that had been presented to Hamas.

The first phase of the plan would last six weeks and include a temporary truce that would see the release of some of the hostages still being held in Gaza in return for Palestinians from Israeli jails. The second phase would include a permanent cessation of hostilities.

On Thursday, the US, UK and 16 other countries with citizens among the hostages issued a joint statement calling on the leaders of Israel and Hamas “to make whatever final compromises are necessary to close this deal and bring relief to the families of our hostages”.

Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Wednesday that the group would deal “seriously and positively” with a proposal based on an end to the war and a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted he will not agree to a permanent ceasefire before Hamas is defeated and the hostages are released. On Wednesday, he declared that the country was “striving for total victory”.

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