There is word that multiple people were killed today when Israel mortars struck an UNRWA school housing Gazans displaced by conflict. The details are still coming in, but this seems to be a mass casualty event. Media is reporting at least 15 people killed. UNRWA says it relayed the coordinates of the shelter to the Israeli Army to avoid this kind of incident.

Alas, this sort of thing has happened before.  On January 15, 2009 during Operation Cast Lead Israeli fired white phosphorous incendiary shells at an UNRWA compound sheltering 600-700 people. No one was killed in that attack. But an attack a week earlier near an UNRWA school killed at least 40 people. Here’s a report from the New York Times from January 2009. 

The strike against the United Nations headquarters wounded three people, destroying with three shells a warehouse full of hundreds of tons of food and medicine, said John Ging, director of United Nations operations in the area.

The incident, a week after some 40 people were reported killed when an Israeli mortar shell struck near a United Nations school, underscored the difficult relations between Israel and the United Nations that stretch back to Israel’s founding.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, in Jerusalem to discuss possible cease-fire terms, expressed “strong protest and outrage” and demanded an investigation.

But Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on Thursday justified the attack on the refugee agency headquarters, saying that Hamas militants had fired at Israeli forces from within the compound.

A UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry into alleged violations of international humanitarian law during the 2009 Gaza conflict found that Israel was not justified under the laws of war to target these UNRWA compounds sheltering civilians. It recommended that the Security Council refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, but the Security Council declined to do so.

Now, here we are five and a half years later and history seems to be repeating itself. An UNRWA compound sheltering civilians has once again been targeted; and once again dozens of people have been killed.  The precise circumstances will become apparent in the coming days, but this is yet another sad example of the consequences of violating UNRWA’s neutrality.  When UNRWA’s neutrality is compromised and violated, civilians pay the price.

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