Al-Fakhura school incident
|Al-Fakhura school incident|
Wall damaged in the shelling
|Location||Near Al-Fakhura school, Jabalia Camp, Gaza Strip|
|Date||January 6, 2009|
|Perpetrators||Israel Defense Forces|
The al-Fakhura School incident refers to an Israeli military strike that took place during the Gaza War on January 6, 2009 outside a United Nations-run school in the Jabalia Camp in the Gaza Strip. According to UN and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), 42 people were killed, 41 of them civilians. Israel reported the death toll as 9 Hamas militants and 3 noncombatants with senior IDF officers stating that the death toll published by Hamas was "grossly exaggerated". Israel states it fired on the school in response to militant gunfire believed to be coming from al-Fakhura.
On January 6, 2009, 350 Palestinians were using the al-Fakhura school run by UNRWA as a shelter. UNRWA later claimed 1,300 people were present at the school compound, and New York Times story put the figure at 1,674 people. Most were from northern Gaza near Beit Lahiya, after being ordered to leave by the IDF for their own safety. Two Israeli tanks fired shells which exploded outside the school.
Over forty people were killed in the incident but the IDF said that twelve people died, nine of them Hamas militants.The Guardian stated that, while the school itself was targeted, the majority of those killed were not in the school but in the playground and nearby street.
According to Mouin Gasser, a 45-year-old teacher, the area around the school was hit four times in about two minutes by the shells that landed just outside the school. Gasser said that he did not see any militants in the area. The Daily Mail quoted an eyewitness stating that he saw the marks from five separate explosions.
Hanan Abu Khajib said that Hamas militants fired just outside the school compound, likely from the secluded courtyard of a house across the street some 25 yards from the school, and that Israeli return fire minutes later landed outside the school along its southwest wall, killing two Hamas fighters.
Two unnamed residents, who spoke to an Associated Press reporter by phone on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said a group of militants had been firing mortar shells rounds from a street close to the school. Jonathan Miller wrote in a Channel 4 story that "local residents in the street told me that militants had been firing rockets – as the IDF claimed – and having been targeted in retaliatory fire by the IDF, they ran down the street past the school." Residents of the neighborhood said two brothers who were Hamas fighters were in the area at the time of the attack. The Israeli military identified the brothers as Imad Abu Asker and Hassan Abu Asker, and said they had been killed. Residents also said that the mortar fire had not come from the school compound, but from elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Shadi Abu Shanar who worked as a guard at the school said: "Suddenly I heard a number of explosions at the gate. I went out onto the street and found dead bodies and wounded people lying on the ground. Most of them were cut into pieces. The street was full of people. I was about to pass out because of what I saw. The shells landed in a range of 20 to 40 meters around the school. The school was full of people."
A UN Board of Inquiry found that there was no firing from within the school and no explosives within the school. The Board could not establish with certainty whether there had been any firing from the vicinity of the school. Four witness statements collected by Defence for Children International-Palestine section indicate that the area was quiet, and that adults and children were going about their daily business.
The IDF originally claimed that Hamas militants were inside the school. The Israeli army stated that Hamas militants were firing mortar shells from the school just moments before the strike
The IDF stated that a number of Hamas gunmen were inside the school, among them Imad and Hassan Abu-Askar, known to the IDF as Hamas rocket-launching operatives, and claimed to have found their bodies following the attack.
Israeli defense officials told The Associated Press that booby-trapped bombs in the school had triggered secondary explosions that killed additional Palestinians there. The IDF has released footage of militants launching rockets from a UNRWA school in a different incident in 2007 to support its account.
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Yigal Palmer said that a Hamas squad was firing mortar shells from the immediate vicinity of the school. Israel accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields by launching rockets from a site near the school and then fleeing into a crowd.
According to Haaretz, a preliminary investigation found that the army's location system to pinpoint launch sites indicated that Hamas militants had launched a Qassam rocket into Israel from within a yard adjacent to the schoolyard. The troops had intended to launch a smart missile but a technical malfunction made this impossible. Instead mortar shells were used. Due to a GPS error margin of 30 meters, one of three rounds hit the UNRWA building. Two of the rounds hit the yard used to launch rockets into Israel, killing two members of Hamas' military wing.
On February 15, 2009, The Jerusalem Post published the IDF account of the Palestinian fatalities in the incident. According to Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA), 12 Palestinians were killed – 9 Hamas operatives and 3 noncombatants. The CLA also stated that the IDF was returning fire after coming under attack, that its shells did not hit the school compound, and that this has been acknowledged by the UN. Colonel Moshe Levi, head of the CLA said that: "From the beginning, Hamas claimed that 42 people were killed, but we could see from our surveillance that only a few stretchers were brought in to evacuate people". The Jerusalem Post quotes CLA officials stating that on the day of the incident officers from the CLA contacted the Palestinian Health Ministry and were told that 3 Palestinian civilians had been killed and that Hamas was hiding the identities of the remaining casualties. 
On April 22, 2009, the IDF announced the results of its internal investigation on Operation Cast Lead. The report found that Hamas had fired mortar shells at a position 80 meters from the school and that the IDF used "minimal and proportionate retaliatory fire" afterward. It also concluded that the IDF "did not, at any time, fire with the deliberate intention to hit a UN vehicle or facility" at any point in the conflict.
Fauzi Barhoun, a Hamas spokesman, said allegations that militants had used the school to attack Israeli forces were baseless. Abdel Minaim Hasan who lost his eldest daughter, Lina, 11, wept by her body wrapped in a Hamas flag. The New York Times reported that he cried out: "From now on I am Hamas! ... I choose resistance!" He also cursed the Arab nation, shouting, "The Arabs are doing nothing to protect us!" Huda Deed who lost nine members of her extended family, ages 3 to 25, was also weeping and standing before the bodies of the dead remarked, "Look, they’ve lined them up like a ruler!" When asked for an interview by Al-Aqsa TV, the Hamas channel, she refused. Mushir al-Masri, a senior Hamas official who emerged from hiding to attend the funeral, commended the dead and called them martyrs. According to the New York Times, some parents greeted him by shaking his hand while others stared at him coldly.
United Nations response
John Ging, Director of UNRWA operations, said that three shells had landed "at the perimeter of the school". He said Israel knew it was targeting a UN facility. Later, in an investigation by The Globe & Mail which concluded that Israel did not attack the school, Ging stated that all three Israeli mortar shells landed outside the school and that he knew that "no one was killed in the school."
OCHA also reported on 6 January that the missile strikes had been outside the school. In its report of the following day, however, it said the school itself had been shelled. Three weeks later, this error was corrected by Maxwell Gaylord, the UN humanitarian coordinator, who stated that the UN "would like to clarify that the shelling, and all of the fatalities, took place outside rather than inside the school. As a result, several news agencies claimed that the UN had backtracked from its original claim that the strike had hit the school Abraham Rabinovich of The Australian also criticized John Ging and other UN officials claiming they did not "dispel widespread suspicions" and that one of Ging's statement implied the school was hit directly.
According to an Israeli Government report published on July 2009, the UN Board of Inquiry was unable to reach any conclusion whether or not mortars were being fired and directed against the IDF from near to the school...[the Board] was not in a position to assess whether [more precise] means of response was available to the IDF at the time and, if it was not, the length and consequences of any delay until it might have become available.
The UNHRC fact-finding mission report in September 2009 criticized the choice of weapons for the counterstrike and said the IDF had violated the law of proportionality. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs stated that one of the key witnesses of the fact-finding committee was directly linked to the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades and that contrary to the claims, there were Palestinian operatives in the Al-Fakhura school area.
In the initial response to the UNHRC fact-finding mission report, Israeli Government replied that the committee findings reflect the oversimplistic approach to complex military challenges during the fighting, implying that the mission members did not possess the information that was known to the force's commander at the time of the attack regarding the immediate threat, weapon's availability and potential risks to civilians.
- Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon condemned the attack, calling it "totally unacceptable".
- Bush administration Press Secretary Dana Perino stated just after the incident that “I saw the reports about the school. I don’t have any information about that. I think that we should not jump to conclusions and we should wait to find out what the evidence says... What we do know is that Hamas often hides amongst innocents and uses innocent people, including children, as human shields."
- The incident prompted President-elect Barack Obama to break his silence over the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict, saying that "[t]he loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern for me".
- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that the incident and the fighting preceding it represents "the darkest moment yet for the Middle East".
- The British Foreign Minister David Miliband said, "I've just landed in New York and been told of the terrible, shocking news of 30 further civilian deaths in a UN school. I think that this devastating news underlines the need for the immediate ceasefire that the prime minister and I have been calling for."
The New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and the San Francisco Chronicle linked the attack on al-Fakhura school with a possible cease-fire or withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. In an analysis of Israeli media strategy in the 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict, the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle compared the killing of the civilians at al-Fakhura to the 1996 shelling of Qana and the Qana airstrike in Lebanon. The New York Times described these three events as "sudden events that can throw off so many careful calculations and come to symbolize the horrors of war". The New York Times said that the al-Fakhura killings "will inevitably turn stomachs all over the world and increase pressure on Israel for an early cease-fire". Al Jazeera said that the event has already caused "mounting pressure [on Israel] to agree a ceasefire". The San Francisco Chronicle said that "the clock might start ticking for Israel to withdraw its troops."
- Incidents in the Gaza War
- International law and the Arab-Israeli conflict
- Media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
- United Nations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
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