Israeli strike on UN school in central Gaza leaves at least 35 dead

The facility, run by UNRWA, housed people displaced by the war. The Hamas government in the Strip places the toll at 40, including 14 children. The Israeli army says the ‘precision’ airstrike targeted between 20 and 30 Hamas and Islamic Jihad militiamen

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA)
The UNRWA school was hit by an Israeli strike in Nuseirat in the early hours of Thursday.Ali Jadallah (Anadolu/ Getty Images)
Antonio Pita

At least 35 people were killed Thursday in an Israeli strike a United Nations school housing war-displaced people, according to Juliette Touma, director of communications for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which runs the facility. The Hamas government in Gaza places the number of dead at 40 and says 14 were children and nine were women. The Israeli army acknowledged the attack, but said it was a “precision” operation against 20 to 30 Hamas and Islamic Jihad militiamen who had been identified by intelligence services as using the building.

In the photographs and images broadcast by news agencies and television channels, both inside the school and at the Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in nearby Deir al-Balah, at least 15 corpses can be seen wrapped in blankets or in white bags, as well several people with wounds of varying severity, including children and women.

Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said in a video conference with journalists that the air strike targeted three rooms in which between 20 and 30 militiamen had installed themselves. “We are confident that we have limited and reduced the damage to civilians in the attack [...] We are confident from our intelligence information that the terrorists were there,” he said. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives were not launching attacks from the school, he added, but they were using it as a hideout. The Hamas government in the Strip described the reports of the presence of fighters in the school as a “lie” and a “fabrication.”

The Israeli army has accepted that there were civilians in the school, but has not acknowledged any civilian casualties, nor has it opened an investigation or spoken of a “mistake,” as was the case after the bombing in May of a displaced persons camp in Rafah, southern Gaza, where one of the two Israeli missiles deployed caused a fire in which 45 Palestinians were killed by flames and smoke.

The school hit Thursday is located in Nuseirat, a refugee camp in central Gaza. It is one of the areas from which Israeli troops had withdrawn months ago, but they had initiated a new ground operation a day earlier against Hamas militiamen, who are employing guerrilla tactics and trying to reorganize.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on a school for displaced persons belonging to UNRWA in Nuseirat refugee camp on June 06, 2024 in the Gaza Strip.Ashraf Amra (Anadolu/ Getty Images)

Joint appeal for permanent ceasefire

Israeli bombardments are ongoing in various points in Gaza, in spite of last Friday’s call by U.S. President Joe Biden to seek a negotiated end to the eight-month war. The optimism generated by Biden’s speech, in which a phased “Israeli proposal” was presented that would lead to a permanent ceasefire and which Hamas received “positively,” has since faded.

Seventeen countries, led by Washington, issued an unusual joint appeal Thursday in support of the ceasefire agreement “right now on the table and as outlined by Biden.” “It is time for the war to end,” the statement said. “At this decisive moment, we call on the leaders of Israel as well as Hamas to make whatever final compromises are necessary to close this deal and bring relief to the families of our hostages, as well as those on both sides of this terrible conflict, including the civilian populations.” Among the signatories are three Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil and Colombia), 11 European nations (Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, and the United Kingdom), in addition to the U.S., Canada and Thailand.

Hamas has asked the governments mediating the ceasefire talks — Egypt, Qatar, and the United States — for clarification because the proposal put forward by Biden differs from the one actually presented by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. “After examining the content of the Israeli document, it is clear that it does not propose the correct basis for the required agreement, since it does not guarantee a definitive ceasefire, but a temporary one, and does not closely link the three stipulated stages,” Hamas said in a statement Wednesday.

The Islamist movement accepts the proposal to return all the hostages still held in Gaza (124, about a third of who are deceased) in phases, as long as it has assurances that the final stage of deal is met: the end of the war. In fact, it has asked Washington, Israel’s main ally, for guarantees that Netanyahu would not simply honor the first phase of the deal and then resume bombing in the Strip.

This first phase consists of a truce of at least six weeks during which Hamas would hand over about 30 of the living hostages, consisting of women, the elderly, and the sick and wounded, and some of those that have died while in captivity. In return, Israel would release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, allow displaced persons in southern Gaza to return to the north, (which is currently prevented by checkpoints), withdraw its troops from populated areas, and allow 600 trucks of humanitarian aid to enter the Strip each day.

Netanyahu, whose ultranationalist partners are threatening to leave the coalition government if he seals the deal, refuses a permanent ceasefire without first “destroying” Hamas’ ability to fight and to govern in Gaza. Biden insisted in his speech that the Israeli army had destroyed Hamas in the course of eight months of bombardments - which have killed some 36,000 Palestinians and left over half of the buildings in the Strip damaged or destroyed - and that the Islamist militias are now incapable of launching another attack like that of October 7, which triggered the Israeli offensive in the Strip.

While keeping up his warmongering rhetoric in Gaza, Netanyahu has in recent days placed the focus on Lebanon. On Wednesday, he visited the border area, where the Israeli army and the Hezbollah militia maintain a growing — but still measured — daily crossfire that has forced the evacuation of some 100,000 Lebanese and 60,000 Israelis from their homes. “Whoever thinks he can hurt us and we will respond by sitting on our hands is making a big mistake. We are prepared for very intense action in the north. One way or another, we will restore security to the north,” the Israeli prime mininster said.

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