When explosives hit a United Nations school compound housing Palestinians who had fled the fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants last week, news organizations ranging from the Associated Press to NBC News immediately reported that it was Israeli military fire that killed at least 15 Palestinian civilians who were seeking shelter there.
But an Israel Defense Forces investigation – bolstered by aerial video it has now made public – paints a different picture from the characterization by mainstream news outlets as to what really occurred in Gaza's Beit Hanoun neighborhood July 24.
One example of last week’s coverage was an Associated Press lead paragraph on the incident which stated unequivocally that Israel was behind the shooting; buried deep in the article was also information that Hamas happened to be shooting in the area.
“Israeli tank shells hit a compound housing a U.N. school in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens who were seeking shelter from fierce clashes on the streets outside, Palestinian officials said, as Israel pressed forward with its 17-day war against the territory's Hamas rulers,” the AP’s first sentence read. A later version of the story attributed the deaths to “cross-fire”; the newer rewrite replaced the original report at this link.
That day following the incident, NBC News reported: “Israeli shells slammed into a compound housing a U.N. school in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, killing at least 15 people and wounding scores more who were seeking shelter from the bloody fighting across the region.”
A headline in Britain’s Guardian newspaper read: “Israeli strike on Gaza school kills 15 and leaves 200 wounded.”
Agence France-Presse, a news agency whose coverage is carried worldwide, never noted that Hamas had been firing in the area, even though the spokesman for the primary U.N. agency in Gaza UNRWA issued statements noting the activity.
“A United Nations school sheltering displaced Palestinians in central Gaza came under Israeli fire on Tuesday as a team was inspecting damage from a day earlier, a UN official said,” AFP’s lead sentence stated.
The IDF's inquiry concluded that a courtyard of the U.N.-run school in the Beit Hanoun neighborhood was struck by an Israeli shell, but that in fact the yard was empty at the time, suggesting that Israel did not kill the 15 Palestinians.
The Times of Israel reported that this IDF video showed the explosive landing in the empty courtyard:
IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told military correspondents on a conference call following the investigation: “A single errant mortar landed in the school courtyard, injuring no one.”
The Times of Israel reported that Lerner said there had been “intense fighting” in the area during which Palestinian militants fired anti-tank missiles at Israeli soldiers, who then responded with live fire.
The Palestinian militants were firing from areas “adjacent to, and in the vicinity of, the school,” Lerner asserted.
From the Times of Israel, which reported that 16 had been killed:
Lerner suggested that the 16 dead and dozens of wounded could have been caught in the crossfire and brought into the courtyard, perhaps for treatment, or may have been hit by rockets or mortars fired by the militants themselves.
He said he had “no idea” where the dead had come from, and stated that it was “extremely unlikely” that anyone had been killed by the single mortar round that fell in the empty yard. […]
Lerner added that, in a move he termed “out of the ordinary,” Palestinian health officials in Gaza did not share the nature of the wounds of the casualties, which may have shed light on the causes of death.
An IDF statement following the new findings read in part: “The IDF rejects the claims that were made by various officials immediately following the incident, that people were killed in the school premises as a result of IDF operational activity.”
"In light of the results of the investigation, claims that people were harmed inside school grounds, as presented after the incident by some, have been ruled out. The IDF regrets every harm to civilians in combat, but stresses again that this is the sad result of Hamas's decision to use the civilian sphere as a human shield," the IDF said, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Last Thursday, the IDF posted messages on Twitter noting that its forces had been responding to Hamas militants fighting in the area and said it would investigate.
An IDF Armored Corps commander, Lt. Col. Idan Moreg, described the complexity his men are facing fighting in Gaza where Hamas militants hide behind human shields.
“They are firing from everywhere: from the school courtyard and from the mosque. Everywhere that constitutes a ‘sensitive site’ for us is a legitimate location for them,” Moreg told Haaretz on Saturday
One of his soldiers, Staff Sgt. Guy Levy, was killed by Palestinians firing from the grounds of an UNRWA school Gaza.