Israel, UNWRA, and What Lies Behind the Gaza Schoolyard Massacre

There are reasons the U.N. agency charged with caring for Palestinian refugees is the focus of Israeli suspicion, but in Gaza it may also be in Israel’s sights.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza – No one ever has to ask who will take care of the children of Palestine, or, at least, who will try. Where will they be educated? Where will they find refuge from the worst effects of poverty? Where will they seek shelter in times of war, like the fighting that has raged in Gaza for almost three weeks? They will always turn to the organization that goes by the name UNRWA, which is an ungainly acronym, pronounced just the way it looks, for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

That is where children and their parents had turned last Thursday when what appear to have been Israeli tank shells hit an UNRWA school here in Beit Hanoun. It had been turned into a shelter close – too close – to the front lines near the northern border between Gaza and Israel. At latest count, 17 people died here and about 200 were injured.

As I made my way to the scene on Saturday during an all-too-brief 12-hour humanitarian truce called in the wake of the massacre, there was an eerie post-apocalyptic feel to the streets. Residents picked through the shattered concrete of flattened apartment buildings. Scattered here and there were the corpses of horses and donkeys. As fuel has gotten ever more expensive and harder to find during the years-long Israeli blockade, people have turned to these more primitive means of transportation. Now those are destroyed, too, and the animals are strewn about, bloating and stinking, as if in a tableau of “Guernica.”

There is no respite from the destruction as I drive into the UNRWA compound. Children’s paintings on the white walls are pockmarked with shrapnel. One shell blast in the middle of the courtyard has demolished the grey brick cobblestones. A second blast hit near the school’s garden, demolishing flowers. Random shoes and torn mattresses litter the ground along with half-drunk bottles of water and soda. The signs of a panicked and traumatic attempted escape from the school are everywhere. Here are shards of splintered writing desks. There are scattered pages from notebooks that rustle listlessly in the dust.

The two most deadly blasts hit classrooms on the second and third floor of the school and even days later the sulphur smell of explosives still hangs in the air. The rooms are blackened and charred; light pours in through shattered windows and shell holes in the walls. Desks are piled neatly in the corner where they’d been moved to make more room for people seeking shelter. Broken glass crunches under my feet as I walk through the school. In some rooms the floor is caked with dry blood.

A few of the survivors have returned to look for belongings. “This is the first time I came back since the shelling, thank God,” says 27-year-old Bassem Adwan. He looks much older than his age, with heavy bags under his eyes and so much plaster in his hair and beard that he seems to be prematurely gray. He looks through me as we talk, as if he could still see in front of him what he witnessed on Thursday. He starts to describe people who were scrambling for cover from the incoming shells, but, of course, there is nothing in a school that stops artillery. He looks around. “I’m afraid,” he says as he loads a hotplate into the back of a horse-drawn cart.

While many people in Gaza, Israel and the world were horrified by the attack on the school, which took place in the heat of battle, they should not have been surprised. This is a real war, and a very one-sided one when it comes to technology and casualties. In all, more than 1,000 Palestinians have died so far, most of them civilians, many of them children. The Israelis have lost almost 40 people, almost all of them soldiers.

The Israeli government has been making the case for a long time, especially since it decided to roll its troops into Gaza to stop Hamas rocket attacks, that UNRWA is a problem. Last week, days before the incident at Beit Hanoun, Israeli officials practically accused UNRWA of collaborating with Hamas militarily. When UNRWA personnel discovered several Hamas rockets hidden in one of the agency’s empty buildings, they handed them over to the local authorities who, very probably, work for Hamas. But one business UNRWA is not in is bomb disposal, and it is not clear what else it could have done at that point. Some Israeli web sites, meanwhile, have picked up on what they claim is evidence in Palestinian social media that UNRWA school facilities have been used by Hamas to indoctrinate and train a future generation of terrorists.

The common view in Israel is that UNRWA lets itself be instrumentalized by terrorists; that it’s not neutral enough; that, well, it isn’t on Israel’s side. And what UNRWA certainly represents is a reminder that Israel was created at the expense of a great many Arabs’ lives and futures.

Since 1948, when the first 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes during the first Arab-Israeli war, the international community has taken responsibility for the schooling and care of their young ones through this organization created expressly for that purpose, because, from the beginning, it was understood that the plight of Palestinian refugees would be different from that of other refugees. They had been displaced not by the enemies of the West, but by its newly created friend and ally, Israel, so special attention needed to be paid. Sixty-six years and many generations later, that is still the case.

In a hospital in the nearby neighborhood of Beit Lahia, and in Gaza City’s Al Shifa Hospital, I talked to several survivors of the incident at the UNRWA school/refuge in Beit Hanoun.

Just before the shells hit, 30-year-old Attaf Rafik Hammud was told about an Israeli warning to evacuate because of an imminent bombardment, and he scrambled to comply. Now he lies on a gurney in an overcrowded hospital room. He was hit by several pieces of shrapnel. His bandaged leg rests, slightly elevated, on a bloodstained cushion borrowed from a couch.

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Hammud considers himself lucky he’s not one of those killed. He winces in pain and his wounded leg twitches as he tells me he fled his northern Gaza home to take shelter in the school, believing it was a safer option.

“Two people from the municipality told us to collect our things, gather in the school courtyard and wait for a bus,” he said, attempting to lean forward on the rails of the hospital bed. He and his neighbors expected to be evacuated. “After ten minutes four shells fell.” Hammud was cut down in the first blast in a hallway near the courtyard as he watched children and adults blown to pieces outside.

All the survivors I talked to say there was a brief warning to evacuate before at least four Israeli tank shells hit the school and courtyard, just as people gathered there to try to leave. The Israelis have not yet confirmed that these were their shells, and have raised the possibility that a Hamas rocket went astray. But these Palestinians, who live near the front line with Israel and have weathered the attacks of the Israel Defense Forces before, swear they know the sound of a Merkava tank’s gun when they hear it. Israeli munitions litter the district and the fire appears to have come from the Israeli side near the Erez border crossing. The survivors’ version appears to fit the evidence.

The shelling of Beit Hanoun was not the first time an UNRWA building was hit in this conflict. There were three attacks on other U.N. schools-turned-shelters before Thursday’s carnage, according to the agency’s spokesperson, Christopher Gunness, and 80 other UNRWA facilities have been damaged in this war.

Gunness says that U.N. investigation teams were fired on and had to turn back when they tried to reach the Beit Hanoun school on Friday. That incident echoed a similar attempt on Tuesday by the UN to investigate the shelling the day before of a girls’ school-turned-shelter in the Megazi refugee camp.

It doesn’t help that Hamas has tried to take advantage of UNRWA’s facilities.

“There have been two occasions when we found rockets [in UNRWA sites] and whenever we find them, we condemn them,” said Gunness. But he wants to be clear: “There was no evidence of rockets in the schools that were attacked or signs of militants,” he said.

As for Hammud, when his shrapnel-filled leg mends enough for him to leave the hospital, he will not have a home to return to. He doesn’t think it will be safe to return to Beit Hanoun and despite the attacks that UNRWA facilities have been facing, he likely will end up in another one.

“I will go to stay in a school in the Jaballiya refugee camp,” he said. “God willing, I’ll be safe there.”