U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon directly accused Israel of shelling a U.N.-protected shelter housing more than 3,000 Palestinians in Gaza as part of what he said was an "outrageous" and "unjustifiable" strike that left at least 16 civilians dead and lent urgency to the need for an "immediate, unconditional cease-fire."
In a scorching rebuke from the normally mild-mannered diplomat, Ban charged that Israel's action constituted a "reprehensible" assault on civilians and demanded that those responsible for the strike be held accountable. The shelling of the Jabalia Elementary Girls School marked the fifth time since the conflict began on July 8 that a U.N.-protected shelter has been hit with incoming fire, but the incident is the first time that Ban has directly blamed Israel. That leaves open the possibility that some of the other facilities were hit by Hamas rockets. Israeli officials have said the militant group stores weapons in U.N. facilities and uses them to fire rockets into the Jewish state.
"This morning, yet another United Nations school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families suffered a reprehensible attack. All available evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause," Ban said during a stop-off in Costa Rica. "Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children."
The Israel Defense Forces say that they did not intentionally target the U.N. facility. Instead, a spokesman for the Israeli military told the New York Times that troops had shot back after being fired upon from the "vicinity" of the school. The Palestinian militant group Hamas -- which has fired more than 2,600 rockets against Israel and mounted raids inside Israel through a vast network of underground tunnels -- has stored rockets inside abandoned U.N. shelters and routinely mounts military strikes against Israelis from densely populated neighborhoods in Gaza.
It's unclear whether Wednesday's strike against a U.N. facility would mark a turning point in the conflict. But it is likely to massively increase pressure on Barack Obama's administration to negotiate an end to the weeks-long fighting, which shows no signs of winding down.
White House spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said the administration is "extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in U.N.-designated shelters in Gaza." But Meehan also said armed Palestinians were "responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza."
"This violence underscores the need to achieve a cease-fire as soon as possible," she added.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also condemned the shelling of the U.N. school. Asked whether she was not prepared to blame Israel for the attack, she said: "That's correct. We have said that there needs to be a full investigation to see what happened here."
Ban said that the United Nations had provided Israeli military authorities with the precise location and coordinates of the shelter 17 times during the conflict, including a few hours before the attack. Ban's deputy secretary-general, Jan Eliasson, said that the United Nations found mortar fragments from Israeli shells at the scene of the strike that pointed to Israeli responsibility.
"They were aware of the coordinates and exact locations where these people are being sheltered," Ban said. "I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice."
The remarks were uncharacteristically harsh for the U.N. chief, who has been working closely with Israel, the Palestinians, the United States, and other foreign leaders to hammer out a cease-fire plan that would guarantee Israel's security while relieving the plight of Gazan civilians, who have borne the brunt of suffering in the conflict.
Fighting has cost the lives of more than 1,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, while Israel has lost 60 people, including 57 soldiers. On Wednesday, three Israeli soldiers were killed in what Israeli officials described as an operation in a booby-trapped UNRWA health clinic.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) -- which is sheltering more than 200,000 Palestinians in some 85 locations -- has discovered rocket arsenals hidden in U.N.-administered schools. John Ging, a senior U.N. relief official, told reporters at U.N. headquarters Wednesday that the rockets were placed in schools abandoned by the United Nations during the conflict.
Late Wednesday, Jordan, the lone Arab country on the Security Council, called for an emergency session Thursday morning to hear briefings on Gaza from the U.N.'s top humanitarian relief experts. Amman has also been weighing whether to push for a vote on a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's military operation and calling on the U.N. to protect Palestinian civilians. The United States has previously opposed the adoption of such a resolution, arguing that it would be more productive to persuade the warring parties to negotiate a cease-fire.
As the fighting persisted, U.S., U.N., and European diplomats intensified efforts to revive the stalled peace process, focusing on four key elements: an immediate cease-fire, a plan for reopening Gaza's border crossings into Egypt and Israel, the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors to bring in goods, and a proposal for disarming armed Palestinian groups.
Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, is in the region pushing both parties to agree to the four measures. The cease-fire proposal that he's advocating is largely based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860, which sets the terms for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 conflict between Israel and Hamas. That resolution called for the "unimpeded" distribution of humanitarian aid to Gazans.
Another idea under consideration by Israel and other key powers involves the adoption of a new measure inspired by Resolution 1701, which formally ended the 2006 war in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shiite militia. The new resolution would call for extending the Palestinian Authority's administration over Gaza and disarming armed Palestinian fighters, including Hamas. The plan -- which was outlined by Haaretz's diplomatic reporter Barak Ravid -- would require some sort of international monitoring force to verify compliance with the terms. Ravid reported Wednesday that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push for such a resolution in the Security Council.
But one U.N.-based diplomat said that negotiators will have to address one uncomfortable reality. "What is in it for Hamas?" the diplomat said. Negotiators, the diplomat said, will have to include incentives, including the payment of salaries to Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip's government.
"We are keen to try to use this crisis to advance a plan that might lead to something more sustainable than going back to the status quo ante," said one senior Western diplomat. The hope, the diplomat said, is we "could get a humanitarian pause to stop the killing" and create some "political space for longer-term ideas."
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