Israel’s Shifting Defense of Its Attack on the UN School (Updated Again)
Those who defend Israel’s use of armed force — in Gaza and elsewhere — often complain that critics reflexively assume the worst about Israel’s intentions. There is more than a grain of truth to that, but Israel doesn’t help itself with its inability to admit that faulty intelligence sometimes leads it to make mistakes. Case in point: the attack on a UN school on Tuesday that killed 30 Palestinian civilians and wounded 55. Israel’s first response was to claim — as it always does — that the school was being used as cover by Hamas militants:
The Israel Defense Forces said a mortar-firing operation and a pair of prominent Hamas operatives — Imad Abu Askhar and Hassan Abu Askhar — were at the occupied school hit Tuesday. The two were among the Hamas militants killed in the strike, an IDF statement said.
“This is not the first time that Hamas terrorists have used Palestinian civilians as human shields and has exploited their deaths for the benefit of the international media,” an Israeli statement read. “Israel will continue to treat as valuable the lives of all Palestinian civilians and refuses to devalue the lives of Gaza residents in the manner of Hamas.”
That claim was short-lived. Israel has now been forced to admit that its attack on the school was not, in fact, a response to enemy fire originating from within the school:
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told Haaretz yesterday that the army had conceded wrongdoing.
“In briefings senior [Israel Defense Forces] officers conducted for foreign diplomats, they admitted the shelling to which IDF forces in Jabalya were responding did not originate from the school,” Gunness said. “The IDF admitted in that briefing that the attack on the UN site was unintentional.”
Notice Israel’s new claim (assuming that Gunness is recounting the briefings accurately, which seems to be the case since the IDF has not corrected him): the attack on the school was unintentional. That is a convenient excuse, designed to mitigate Israel’s responsibility for the civilian deaths by implying that the attack was simply an unfortunate accident. But this was not an unintentional attack. It was an intentional attack that was either (1) designed to punish the UN for helping the residents of Gaza; or (2) based on faulty intelligence. I think (2) is much more likely than (1) — but Israel’s steadfast refusal to admit that it makes mistakes (which are, of course, inevitable in any armed conflict) will make it far easier for Israel’s critics to argue the opposite position. If so, Israel’s stubbornness will have led it once again to “win” the PR battle but lose the PR war.
UPDATE: In the comments section, Professor Bernstein says that “Israel’s claim is that Hamas was firing from AROUND the school.” Professor Bernstein’s statement is directly contradicted by the IDF’s January 6 YouTube video statement, in which an IDF spokesman specifically claims that Hamas militants were firing from “within” the school. You can watch the video for yourself here. (The statement is at :18.)
UPDATE 2: In the interests of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that the original version of this post mentioned an IDF video that shows Hamas militants launching a mortar attack from the school in 2007. I incorrectly assumed that the IDF did not identify when the video was taken; in fact, they did. When Humble Law Student pointed out my error, I amended the original post.
UPDATE 3: It now seems clear that the IDF did not, in fact, attack the school directly. The confusion, however, is at least partially the IDF’s fault — as noted above, the IDF did not deny launching a direct attack after the attack took place. Indeed, as the YouTube video linked to above demonstrates, the official IDF position was that it did attack the school directly, but only because Hamas militants were using it as a fire base. The IDF then changed its story later, claiming, as the Jerusalem Post story notes, that the school was instead hit by an errant shell.