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“They Thought They’d Be Safe. They Were Wrong”: 20 Gazans Killed in Israeli Bombing of UN Shelter

Dozens of Palestinian civilians have been killed in the most intensive 48-hour bombardment of Gaza so far.

Dozens of Palestinian civilians have been killed in the most intensive 48-hour bombardment of Gaza so far. At least 50 Palestinians have died over the past day, bringing the death toll from Israel’s three-week assault to more than 1,250. Earlier today, two bombs hit a school in the Jabaliya refugee camp used by the United Nations to house displaced Palestinians. Around 20 Palestinians were reportedly killed, including a medic and an infant. Scores were injured. The United Nations has accused Israel of bombing the school. It marks the sixth time a U.N. shelter has been attacked since Israel launched its offensive 23 days ago. We are joined from Gaza City by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, just back from visiting the bombed-out school.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: At least 50 more Palestinians have died over the past 24 hours in Gaza as the Israeli offensive enters its 23rd day. This brings the death toll from Israel’s three-week offensive to over 1,250. At about 4:30 a.m. today, two shells hit a school in the Jabaliya refugee camp used by the United Nations to shelter Palestinians seeking safety from the fighting. The U.N. accused Israel of shelling the school. Reuters is reporting at least 20 Palestinians died in the attack, including a medic and an infant. Scores were injured. Twenty-seven-year-old Abdel-Karim al-Masamha said he and his family had come to the school after fleeing fighting near their home in the northern Gaza Strip.

ABDELKARIM AL-MASAMHA: [translated] People were martyred before our eyes. They were dismembered. Five people, including a woman, were killed in this classroom. We have come here from the targeted areas because they were not safe. We did not find safety here. There are no safe rooms in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 3,000 people were taking refuge at the school at the time of the shelling. It marks the sixth time a U.N. shelter has been attacked since Israel launched its offensive. At least 180,000 Palestinians—more than 10 percent of the population of Gaza—have now sought shelter in about 80 U.N. schools.

We go now directly to Gaza City to Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He has just returned from the U.N. shelter that was shelled earlier this morning.

Sharif, what did you see?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, the assaults on Gaza by Israel are always heavier at night. They continue throughout the day, but the heaviest assaults come at dark. And we wake up to see many people dead and to hear their stories and to see people burying their dead. And these people at this U.N. school in Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza were killed while they slept. Many of these people had come from border areas. They had heeded Israel’s warnings. Some came after leaflets were dropped on their areas, others came after their homes were destroyed by Israel, and they thought that they would be safe in a United Nations-run school. They were wrong.

Last night, I was speaking to multiple eyewitnesses. They said that after the dawn prayers at around 4:30 a.m., the shelling began. They say between three and five shells landed on the school. These schools are incredibly packed, as you mentioned. I think the number now is over 240,000 are displaced in Gaza, well over 10 percent of the population. Those are counting numbers that are not only in U.N. schools but seeking refuge elsewhere, in other homes or other areas. And so these classrooms are incredibly packed. People speak of 60 to 100 people packed into these classrooms. The women and children sleep inside, the men inside. And these shells started raining down on the school. The displaced people there said they did not hear any fighting around the area prior to this attack, the ones who were awake who had just finished dawn prayer. And they spoke of seeing people with their legs blown off, arms blown off, someone said, of a head smashed in. At least 15 people have been killed, according to the Health Ministry. Up to 20 health officials in the Kamal Adwan Hospital nearby said that it was in fact 20 people had been killed, including at least one child. And many of these people, as I mentioned, had come—they come with nothing, usually just the clothes on their back. A lot of them are very poor, and they come with donkey carts. And outside the school, there was—a lot of the donkeys had been killed. There’s these dead animals outside the school as a result of the shelling.

As you mentioned, the United Nations had given the coordinates of the school to the Israeli military, according to the spokesperson, at least 17 times. And now people don’t know where to go. When you speak to the survivors, they don’t know whether to stay at the school. They think now schools are no longer safe. At least six schools have been targeted since this conflict began. And they don’t know what to do, where to go. They don’t have—many of them don’t have relatives to go to because entire neighborhoods have been displaced.

And so, it’s a very dire situation. And this comes after 48 hours of the heaviest air and artillery bombardment of Gaza since this three-week war began. It’s day—we’ve now crossed into—it’s a longer conflict than the 2008-2009 war on Gaza which lasted 22 days and left over 1,300 dead. The Health Ministry says now that 67 people, at least, have been killed today alone, and hundreds more wounded. We’re right now supposed to be in a four-hour humanitarian ceasefire that just began a few minutes ago. The bombing seems to have subsided, although as you can hear, the drones are always ahead.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Sharif, apparently Hamas, Fatah and the Islamic Jihad are due to meet later today in Cairo. Could you say a little about that, in regards the ceasefire, or a possible ceasefire, rather?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, there’s been ongoing negotiations. There’s been ongoing negotiations for a possible ceasefire. Hamas has continued to stick by its main demand, which is the lifting of the crippling siege of Gaza, a lifting of the blockade. The head of Hamas’s military wing, al-Qassam, a man who has not been seen for many years, a shadowy figure by the name of Mohammed Deif, issued an audio recording last night on Hamas’s TV outlet, Al-Aqsa. And in it, he said that al-Qassam would not end its hostilities until the blockade of Israel was—sorry, the blockade of Gaza was lifted. And after that, they aired a video purporting to show a raid by al-Qassam militants into Israel, attacking an army command post, killing a soldier and confiscating one of the assault rifles from the soldier. And this was broadcast on TV repeatedly yesterday.

So, we’ll have to see where the negotiations go, but a main demand is the lifting of the blockade. And Israel seems to continue to shift what its objectives are in this conflict. When it first began, they said, you know, they would have quiet for quiet; if the rockets stopped, then they would stop. Then, last week, they said the main objective was to clear and destroy these tunnels. They said it would take three days, and that was more than 10 days ago. And recently they’re saying now that they won’t stop. They’re demanding for the complete disarmament of Hamas. So it’s really a war in search of a political objective. And in the meantime, civilians are continuing to die. They are by far the greatest victims of this assault on Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, in this last minute we have, the power plant getting struck again?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, Amy. Yesterday the power plant was hit. It’s been destroyed. The officials say it’s going to take up to a year to repair. It supplied over 30 percent of power to the Gaza Strip, which is already suffering severe shortages. I’ve spoken to many people who now have gone from having three to four hours of electricity a day to zero, so no electricity whatsoever. Electricity is also crucial to powering the water pumps for Gaza, and there’s a severe water crisis, as well. Prices are going up for basic goods. There are very long lines outside bakeries for bread. So it’s a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and there’s no end in sight as yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the issue of the Jabaliya school, the U.N. school that was just shelled, was the refugee camp around it, as well?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yeah, Jabaliya itself is a refugee camp. I mean, this is a refugee camp from decades ago, so it’s not what you would think of as tents. I mean, there’s concrete structures and so forth. But it’s one of the most densely populated areas of Gaza. It was very heavily bombarded last night. There were warnings by the Israeli military for residents to leave the area. And again, 44 percent of Gaza has been declared a military buffer zone. So this was already one of the most densely populated places on Earth, and people are being displaced in massive, massive numbers into an increasingly small area. And the places that they are being displaced to are not even safe, even when they do heed Israel’s warnings, when they leave, when they go to U.N. schools, when they go to areas that they think are safe. They’re bombed in their homes. They’re bombed in U.N. schools. They’re killed inside hospitals. So, this is becoming a very difficult situation for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we want to thank you for being with us. Please be safe. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, reporting from Gaza City. When we come back, Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress. Stay with us.