More on the UN’s Gaza ‘lie’

by | Feb 4, 2009

A few hours ago, Daniel Korski suggested on Global Dashboard that the United Nations lied about the shelling of one of its schools – with the UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, playing a part in disseminating the falsehood in a statement in which he condemned this and two similar attacks as ‘unacceptable’.

Like Daniel, I don’t fully understand what happened, or why – but have been trying to track how the story developed. It appears that re-investigation of the attack was conducted by Patrick Martin, from the Canadian Globe and Mail. His story was headlined “account of the Israeli story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.”

Martin interviewed eyewitnesses who told him that while “a few people were injured from shrapnel landing inside the white-and-blue-walled UNRWA compound, no one in the compound was killed.”  No shell landed in the schoolyard itself, he writes, but 43 people were killed by three shells in the street outside.

Martin’s report continues:

The teacher who was in the compound at the time of the shelling says he heard three loud blasts, one after the other, then a lot of screaming. “I ran in the direction of the screaming [inside the compound],” he said. “I could see some of the people had been injured, cut. I picked up one girl who was bleeding by her eye, and ran out on the street to get help. But when I got outside, it was crazy hell. There were bodies everywhere, people dead, injured, flesh everywhere.”

The teacher, who refused to give his name because he said UNRWA had told the staff not to talk to the news media, was adamant: “Inside [the compound] there were 12 injured, but there were no dead.”

“Three of my students were killed,” he said. “But they were all outside.”

Hazem Balousha, who runs an auto-body shop across the road from the UNRWA school, was down the street, just out of range of the shrapnel, when the three shells hit. He showed a reporter where they landed: one to the right of his shop, one to the left, and one right in front.

“There were only three,” he said. “They were all out here on the road.”

This account seems broadly consistent with the UN News Centre report that Daniel links to (and which contains Ban’s condemnation). In it John Ging is reported as saying that “some 30 people were killed and 55 others injured, five of them critically, when three artillery shells landed at the perimeter of a school, which usually serves as a girls’ preparatory school, in the Jabaliya refugee camp.”

Martin argues that the United Nations’ description of the attack was ambiguous and that UN agencies failed to correct “widespread news reports of the deaths in the school.” Israeli reports also seem to have been confused, however, with Mark Regev, the Israeli PM’s spokesman telling the media that (i) there was hostile fire from the school; (ii) the explosion that resulted was “out of proportion to the ordnance we used.” (e.g. that the school had been booby trapped).

Ging makes a much stronger allegation in his account of another attack – this one on an UN school in Beit Lahiya (which was being used as a shelter for refugees). 

Watch this video and you’ll see him accuse the Israelis of firing two phosophorus rounds into that school, two into its perimeter and a further high explosive round onto its roof. The latter killed two brothers aged 5 and 7 and seriously injured their mother. “I’ve seen the phosphorus. It looks like phosphorus. And it burns like phosp0rus,” he says.


Ging goes into more detail here, adding that UN schools are clearly marked, with their co-ordinates sent to the Israeli military. (Warning: some graphic footage.)


I am not confident that I have got to the bottom of this story as yet – but I am sure that Daniel will flesh out his thoughts on UN culpability as more details emerge tomorrow.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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