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Al-Fakhura school incident

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Al-Fakhura school incident
UNRWA damage.jpg
The damaged school after the attack
Location Near Al-Fakhura school, Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip
Date January 6, 2009
Attack type artillery shells
Death(s) 42 (UN)[1]
40 (PMoH)[2]
12 (IDF)[3]
Injured 55
Perpetrator(s) Israel Defence Forces; Palestinian armed groups

The al-Fakhura School incident refers to events that took place nearby a United Nations run school of al-Fakhura located in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on January 6, 2009 during the Gaza War.[4] In response to alleged militant gunfire coming from beside the school, the IDF fired upon the targets that the UN and several NGOs say killed 42, 41 of them civilians, and that according to the IDF killed 9 Hamas militants and 3 noncombatants.[5][6][7][8][9][10] In April 2009, PCHR listed 12 people as killed "near" the school and another 8 "opposite" the school.[11] Several people listed as civilians in the PCHR report are claimed by Hamas as its fighters according to Israeli think tank ICT.[12] In the last week of January, the UN explicitly clarified that no deaths occurred within the building itself and that the rounds struck the street outside the school. A "clerical error" in UN reports had previously stated otherwise.[13]

Several news reports initially stated that the attack directly hit the school itself, and that the victims had taken refuge there to escape the fighting between the IDF and Palestinian militants.[5][6][14] The response, before it was learned that the school itself was not attacked, lead to a renewed push for a cease-fire in the Gaza War.[6][7] The attack had created a public outcry and prompted condemnation from Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon, members of the news media, and international aid agencies.[14] Numerous testimonies from local residents confirmed later that militants fired mortars from a location close to the school compound and that there were no fatalities inside the school.[15][16]

Incident description

On January 6, 2009, at least 350 Palestinians were in the al-Fakhura school run by UNRWA, in Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, seeking refuge from fighting between Israeli and Hamas militants.[4][17] The UNRWA later claimed that as many as 1,300 people were present at the school compound,[18] a New York Times story quoted them at exactly 1,674 people.[19] Most of those present came from northern Gaza near Beit Lahiya and had been ordered to leave there for their own safety by the IDF.[19] Two Israeli tanks fired shells which exploded outside the school, spraying shrapnel on people inside and outside the building.[17][20][21]

Whilst Hamas claimed that over 40 died in the incident, after the IDF investigated it discovered that in fact only 12 people had died, all outside of the school, and nine of which were Hamas terrorists. [22]

Initial reports varied. The Guardian stated that, while the school itself was targeted, the majority of those killed were not in the school itself but had been in the playground and in the nearby street.[20] The Associated Press also stated that the attack occurred "outside" or "near" the school, not on the school itself, and listed 12 or fewer casualties.[23] Other reports stated that over forty people within the actual school were killed in the attack.[5][6] An estimated 55 people were injured.[9] According to The Daily Mail, the nearby hospital was quickly overwhelmed and several injured victims were left in the street.[24]

Eyewitness accounts

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; much shrapnel spread everywhere and hit the people inside the school. Mr Gasser said that he did not see any militants in the area.[25] The Daily Mail quoted an eyewitness stating that he saw the marks from five separate explosions.[24]

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.[15] 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.[26][27] 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."[16][28] Residents of the neighborhood said two brothers who were Hamas fighters were in the area at the time of the attack.[29] The Israeli military identified the brothers as Imad Abu Asker and Hassan Abu Asker, and said they had been killed.[29] Residents also said that the mortar fire had not come from the school compound, but from elsewhere in the neighborhood.[29]

Shadi Abu Shanar who worked as a guard at the school was inside the gate of the school when the attack took place: "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."[25]

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.[30]



The IDF originally claimed that Hamas militants were inside the school.[31] The Israeli army stated that Hamas militants were firing mortar shells from the school just moments before the strike[26][32][33] The IDF stated that a number of Hamas gunmen were inside the school, among them Imad and Hassan Abu-Askar, who are known to the IDF as Hamas rocket-launching operatives,[26][34] and claimed to have found their bodies following the attack.[32] Israeli defense officials told The Associated Press that booby-trapped bombs in the school had triggered secondary explosions that killed additional Palestinians there.[27] The IDF has released footage of militants launching rockets from a UNRWA school in a different incident in 2007 to support its account.[35] Israeli army Spokeswoman Avital Leibovich claimed that a mortar had been fired from the school, and that Israeli forces responded with one mortar shell. She stated, "Let me be clear–I am not apologizing," in relation to the bombing of the school.[36]

Yigal Palmer Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson later clarified that he "know(s) for a fact that a Hamas squad was firing mortar shells from the immediate vicinity of the school... Hamas mortar squad was sticking with their back to the school wall... The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) responded to that fire, and the tragic result was what we all know."[37] Israel has accused Hamas of using civilians as "human shields" by launching rockets from near the school and then fleeing into a crowd.[38][39]

According to Haaretz, a preliminary investigation conducted by the Paratroopers Brigade whose troops were responsible for the area, 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 courtyard of the UN building. The troops had intended to launch a smart missile to take out the Palestinian launch team but a technical malfunction made this impossible. The commanders of the force instead decided to fire on the Qassam team with mortar shells equipped with a Global Positioning System for accurate fire. However, the GPS element has an error margin of 30 meters and one of the three rounds fired by the paratrooper force hit the UNRWA building. Two of the rounds hit the yard used to launch rockets into Israel, killing two members of Hamas' military wing who probably belonged to the squad that fired the rockets. According to Haaretz, some IDF officers say the force should have refrained from using mortar rounds and relied instead on more accurate fire. Haaretz quotes senior IDF officers saying that the death toll published by Hamas is "grossly exaggerated", and that Hamas is inflating the number of casualties.[40][41]

On February 15, 2009, The Jerusalem Post published the IDF account of the Palestinian fatalities in the incident. According to the IDF Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA), 12 Palestinians were killed in the incident - 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".[42] The Jerusalem Post from February 29, 2009 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. [43]

On April 22, 2009, the IDF publicly 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.[44]


Fauzi Barhoun, a Hamas spokesman, said initial allegations that Hamas militants had used the school to attack Israeli forces were "baseless".[26]

The reactions of local residents varied. Abdel Minaim Hasan who lost his eldest daughter, Lina, 11, was weeping by her body which was wrapped in a Hamas flag in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The New York Times reported that he cried out: "From now on I am Hamas! ... I choose resistance!" He also cursed at the Arab nations for ignoring the plight of the Gazans, shouting, "The Arabs are doing nothing to protect us!"[29] 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.[29] 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.[29]

United Nations

The UN originally said that the shelling took place outside the school. John Ging, Director of UNRWA operations in Gaza was quoted by The Guardian as saying that three shells had landed "at the perimeter of the school".[45] Another branch of the UN, its humanitarian affairs agency (OCHA) also reported in its daily output of 6 January that the missile strikes had been outside the school.[46] In its report of the following day, however, it said the school itself had been shelled.[47] 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.[48] As a result, several news agencies claimed that the UN had backtracked from its original claim that the strike had hit the school[49] 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.[50] Christopher Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman, called Rabinovich's article "grossly misleading" and " inaccurate". He pointed out that Ging's statement, which formed the basis for Rabinovitch's argument, was actually in regards to the confirmed attack on another school in which three people were killed, and was made before the Al-Fakhura school incident occurred. The organization also argued that they initially reported that the attack happened outside of Al-Fakhura while Israelis authorities reported that they were firing back at militants in the school, and then later reported that they were responding to militants near the school rather in the school itself.[51]

Israeli Government report published in July 2009 state that the UN Board of Inquiry did not examine whether laws of armed conflict were violated in this incident. The report quotes the findings of the Board:[52]

[the Board 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 in its report from September 2009 criticized IDF for the choice of the weapons for the supposed counterstrike and concluded that the IDF fire at the Al-Fakhura street violated the law of proportionality.[53] Researcher from JCPA stated that examination of freely accessible Palestinian sources shows that one of the key witnesses of the fact-finding committee on the incident 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. He also stressed that at least 6 militants were killed in the incident.[54] On the contrary, Hamas officials stated that among 35 people supposedly killed in the incident, no fighters were registered among the casualties.[55]

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.[56]

Initial Reactions


  • 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."[58]
  • 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." [59]


  • According to Ynet News, "Global news agencies have decried the Israel Defense Forces strike".[34]
  • Yahoo News and The Daily Mail quote AP Photographer Majed Hamdan saying: 'I saw parents slapping their faces in grief, screaming, some collapsed to the floor. They knew their children were dead".[24][60]


  4. 4.0 4.1 Macintyre, Donald; Kim Sengupta (2009-01-07). "Massacre of innocents as UN school is shelled". The Independent. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Scores killed as Gaza UN school hit. Al-Jazeera English. Published 7 January 2009.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Israel pounds Gaza again. Reuters. Published 7 January 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 UN: No Hamas Fighters in Bombed Gaza School. By Tim McGirk. Time. Published January 7, 2009.
  8. "UN: No gunmen in school at time of Israeli shelling; toll rises to 45". Ma'an News Agency. 2009-01-07. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Ging, John (2009-01-06). "Press Conference By Director Of Gaza Operations, United Nations Relief And Works Agency For Palestine Refugees In The Near East". United Nations. Archived from the original on 2009-01-11. Retrieved 2009-01-11. 
  10. IDF releases names UN school casualties. The Jerusalem Post. Published February 19, 2009.
  11. The Dead in the course of the Israeli recent military offensive on the Gaza strip between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009. PCHR, Retrieved on 2009-04-12
  12. Rights group names 1,417 Gaza war dead
  14. 14.0 14.1 Account of Israeli attack on Gaza school doesn't hold up to scrutiny. By Patrick Martin. Toronto Globe and Mail. Published January 29, 2009.
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Weighing Crimes and Ethics in the Fog of Urban Warfare". NY Times. January 16, 2009. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 "Weighing Crimes and Ethics in the Fog of Urban Warfare". Time. March 2, 2009.,8599,1870087,00.html. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 al-Mughrabi, Nidal (2009-01-06). "Israeli shells kill 42 at U.N. school: Gaza medics". Yahoo/Reuters. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 
  18. "Witnesses: Hamas fired from school". The Jerusalem Post. 2009-01-06. Retrieved 2009-01-13. 
  19. 19.0 19.1 Grief and Rage at Stricken Gaza School. The New York Times. Published January 7, 2009.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Gaza's day of carnage. By Chris McGreal and Hazem Balousha. The Guardian. Published 7 January 2009.
  21. Reuters (6 January 2009). "'40 killed at UN school' in Gaza". The Independent. Retrieved 2009-01-06. 
  23. Palestinians say strike on 2nd UN school kills 12. Associated Press. Published January 6, 2009.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 Gaza's darkest day: 40 die as Israel bombs 'safe haven' UN school. By David Williams. The Daily Mail. Published January 7, 2009.
  25. 25.0 25.1 "Gaza: Israeli Attack on School Needs Full UN Investigation: Security Council Should Order International Inquiry into Violations by All Sides". Human Rights Watch. January 7, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-22. 
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 "Strike at Gaza school kills 30". BBC News. 2009-01-06. Retrieved 2009-01-06. 
  27. 27.0 27.1 Yaakov Katz (6 January 2009). "Witnesses: Hamas fired from school". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2009-01-06. 
  28. Jonathan Miller. (5 February 2009). "Why UN 'reversal' over Gaza school should be treated with caution". Channel 4. Retrieved 20 July 09. 
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 29.4 29.5 "Grief and Rage at Striken Gaza School". NY Times. January 7, 2009. 
  30. Operation Cast Lead: 16-year-old killed while playing nearby UNRWA school shelled by Israeli tanks, DCI-Palestine, May 28 2009, Accessed Feb 13 2010
  32. 32.0 32.1 At least 30 Gazans killed in strike on UN school; IDF: Troops fired in self-defense Haaretz. 6th Jan 2009.
  33. Witnesses: Hamas fired from school. Jerusalem Post. 6th/7th Jan 2009.
  34. 34.0 34.1 Hanan Greenberg (6 January 2009). "IDF: Mortars fired from bombed school". ynet.,7340,L-3651722,00.html. Retrieved 2009-01-06. 
  35. Barak Ravid and Akiva Eldar UN: IDF officers admitted there was no gunfire from Gaza school which was shelled Haaretz 9/1/2009
  36. "Massacre: 42 killed by Israeli shelling of UN school in Jabaliya". Ma'an News Agency. 2009-01-06. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 
  37. "Gaza school strike disputed". CNN. 7 January 2009. 
  38. Hamas and Human Shields at the U.N. School. By Philip Klein. The American Spectator. Published January 7, 2009.
  39. "UN rejects IDF claim Gaza militants operated from bombed-out school". Haaretz. January 7, 2009. 
  40. Amos Harel. "IDF investigation shows errant mortar hit UN building in Gaza". Haaretz date = January 11, 2009. 
  41. IDF denies errant shell hit UNRWA school. By Tovah Lazaroff. The Jerusalem Post. Published January 12, 2009,
  42. "'World duped by Hamas death count'" (in English). The Jerusalem Post. 2009-02-15. 
  43. "IDF releases names of UN school deaths" (in English). The Jerusalem Post. 2009-02-29. 
  44. IDF Releases Information Regarding Operation Cast Lead Military Investigations. Israel Defense Force. Published 22 April 2009.
  52. Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, UNHCR report, September 25 2009, para. 696-698, late submission (advanced version released on Sep. 15)
  53. Blocking the Truth of the Gaza War, JCPA, September 18 2009
  54. Hamas drafts responses to its accusations in Goldstone report, China View, October 08 2009
  55. Initial Response to Report of the Fact Finding Mission on Gaza, IMFA, September 24 2009
  57. 58.0 58.1 58.2 Gaza school strike forces Barack Obama to break his silence. By James Hider and Joanna Sugden. Times Online. Published January 6, 2009.
  58. "Brown voices Gaza ceasefire hopes". BBC. 2009-01-06. Archived from the original on 2009-01-08. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 
  59. BARZAK, IBRAHIM (2009-01-06). "Gaza Israel shells near UN school, killing at least 30". Yahoo. 
  60. 61.0 61.1 "For Israel, 2006 Lessons but Old Pitfalls". New York Times. 2009-01-06. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 
  61. 62.0 62.1 Kalman, Matthew (2009-01-07). "Gaza attack could prompt Israel to pull out". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 
  62. "Israel resumes Gaza raid after lull". al Jazeera. 2009-01-08. Retrieved 2009-01-09. 

See also

Template:2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict

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