Israeli Airstrike on UN School in Gaza Kills at Least 35, Including Children, Amid Controversy Over Hamas Presence

Featured & Cover Israeli Airstrike on UN School in Gaza Kills at Least 35 Including Children Amid Controversy Over Hamas Presence

An Israeli airstrike on a United Nations school housing displaced Palestinians in central Gaza has resulted in the deaths of at least 35 people. Local journalists informed the BBC that the attack involved two missiles striking classrooms on the top floor of the school situated in the urban Nuseirat refugee camp. Videos from the scene depicted widespread destruction and numerous casualties.

The Israeli military claimed it conducted a “precise strike on a Hamas compound” within the school, eliminating many of the 20 to 30 fighters it believed were present. Contrarily, Gaza’s Hamas-run Government Media Office refuted this assertion, condemning the strike as a “horrific massacre.”

Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa), which operates the school, described the incident as “horrific.” He expressed shock at the allegation that armed groups were in the shelter, although this could not be verified.

Casualties were transported to the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital in nearby Deir al-Balah, which has been overwhelmed since Israel initiated a new ground offensive against Hamas in central Gaza earlier in the week.

The precise circumstances of the strike remain unclear, with the BBC working to confirm details. Local journalists and residents reported that the attack occurred early Thursday morning at al-Sardi school in a southeastern section of the densely populated, decades-old camp, where Unrwa provides services. The school was crowded with hundreds of displaced individuals who had fled other conflict zones within Gaza. Throughout the almost eight-month-long war, 1.7 million people have sought refuge in schools and other UN facilities.

Udai Abu Elias, a resident at the school, recounted to BBC Arabic’s Gaza Today programme: “I was asleep when the incident occurred. Suddenly, we heard a loud explosion and shattered glass and debris from the building fell on us.” He added, “Smoke filled the air, and I couldn’t see anything. I didn’t expect to make it out alive. I heard someone calling for survivors to come out from under the rubble. I struggled to see as I stumbled over the bodies of the martyrs.”

Another resident, Jabr, described waking up to “the sight of bodies and [human] remains everywhere,” while another unnamed individual noted that the casualties included “elderly people, young individuals, and children.” Social media videos depicted the devastation of several classrooms and bodies wrapped in white shrouds and blankets. One injured woman cried out in a video, “Enough war! We have been displaced dozens of times. They killed our children while they were sleeping.”

Initial reports suggested over 20 deaths, but an official at al-Aqsa hospital later informed a BBC freelancer that 40 bodies had been received from the school. Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry confirmed this toll, listing 40 dead, including 14 children and nine women, with 74 others injured. Ismail al-Thawabta, director of the Hamas-run Government Media Office, corroborated these figures.

Unrwa’s Philippe Lazzarini stated on X, formerly Twitter, that at least 35 people were killed and many more injured, based on reports from Unrwa staff on the ground. Juliette Touma, Unrwa’s director of communications, echoed this, noting that “the figures are coming from our own Unrwa colleagues on the ground.”

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) justified the strike as targeting a Hamas compound within the Unrwa school. They released an annotated aerial photograph indicating classrooms on two upper floors as “locations of the terrorists.” The IDF claimed that members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad involved in the October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in 1,200 deaths and 251 hostages, were operating from the building. The IDF stated that steps were taken to minimize civilian casualties, including aerial surveillance and additional intelligence gathering.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman, asserted that 20 to 30 fighters used the school for planning and executing attacks, many of whom were killed in the strike. He added, “I’m not aware of any civilian casualties and I’d be very, very cautious of accepting anything that Hamas puts out.” Lerner also mentioned that the IDF had twice aborted the attack to reduce civilian harm and accused Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad of using UN facilities as operational bases.

Ismail al-Thawabta refuted the IDF’s allegations, stating, “The occupation uses lying to the public opinion through false fabricated stories to justify the brutal crime it conducted against dozens of displaced people.”

Lazzarini lamented that the school was hit “without prior warning” to Unrwa or the 6,000 displaced individuals sheltering there. He found the claims of armed groups being inside the shelter “shocking” but noted Unrwa could not verify these claims. He emphasized, “Attacking, targeting or using UN buildings for military purposes are a blatant disregard of International Humanitarian law. UN staff, premises and operations must be protected at all times.”

Lazzarini highlighted that over 180 Unrwa buildings had been struck since the war began, despite their coordinates being shared with conflict parties, resulting in more than 450 displaced individuals’ deaths. He demanded accountability for these actions.

The Gaza health ministry reports that at least 36,650 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel’s military campaign began, following the October 7 attack, with figures not distinguishing between civilians and combatants.

Recently, the Israeli military claimed operational control over eastern Bureij refugee camp, adjacent to Nuseirat, and eastern Deir al-Balah, with residents noting intense bombardment. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that al-Aqsa hospital received at least 70 bodies, mostly women and children, in the past 24 hours.

A previous Israeli airstrike on a tented camp for displaced people near an Unrwa base in Rafah, targeting senior Hamas officials, drew international outrage when a resulting fire killed dozens of Palestinians. The IDF called the loss of life “tragic” and investigated the possibility of an explosion from Hamas-stored ammunition.

Efforts to broker a ceasefire and hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas were revived following this incident. US President Joe Biden recently detailed an Israeli proposal to Hamas, suggesting a six-week truce to release some hostages in exchange for Palestinians from Israeli jails, followed by a permanent ceasefire. A joint statement from the US, UK, and 16 other countries urged Israeli and Hamas leaders to finalize a deal to alleviate the hostage families’ suffering.

Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh expressed a willingness to consider a proposal based on ending the war and Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains firm on not agreeing to a ceasefire before defeating Hamas and releasing hostages, striving for “total victory.”

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