The most striking detail about the IDF attack with white phosphorus on the main UNRWA compound in Gaza City — the day UNSG BAN Ki-Moon arrived in the region — was how long it lasted.
Some three hours.
During which time, UNRWA staff and officials were making frantic phone calls to various contacts in the IDF, who were unable to quickly bring the attack to a halt.
A former U.S. Army officer now working with UNRWA told the HRW researchers, as they recounted in their just-released report, “Rain of Fire”, on the Israeli use of white phosphorus during the December-January Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, that the IDF seemed “to be ‘walking’ the artillery fire across the area – firing shells along an arc at evenly spaced intervals”.
The report recounts that “The UNRWA [main] compound [in Gaza City] covers roughly four hectares at the edge of Gaza’s wealthiest neighborhood, Rimal, enclosed by concrete walls at least three meters high. The compound contains the headquarters for all of UNRWA’s operations throughout the Middle East and its field office for Gaza operations, including logistical facilities such as warehouses and garages.
“Around 7:30 a.m. on January 15, IDF artillery shells started landing near the compound, despite calls to IDF officers from UNRWA staff, asking the IDF to stop. At approximately 10 a.m., six shells landed in the compound, at least three of which contained white phosphorus, as well as shrapnel from at least one high explosive artillery round. Three people were wounded and the white phosphorus caused extensive fires. About 700 civilians were sheltering in the compound at the time.
“According to an UNRWA statement, ‘Shells of white phosphorus – a highly incendiary material – set ablaze the [vehicle] workshop and two vast warehouses containing humanitarian food and medical supplies’. The densely packed sacks of flour continued to burn for 12 days, until January 27.
“According to UNRWA, the attack wounded one UN worker and two civilians who had sought shelter in the compound.
“According to Israel, the IDF opened fire at the UNRWA headquarters only after Hamas had attacked its soldiers from within the compound. ‘We do not want such incidents to take place and I am sorry for it but I don’t know if you know, but Hamas fired from the UNRWA site’, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who was visiting Israel at the time of the attack …
“UNRWA Gaza Field Administration Officer Scott Anderson told Human Rights Watch that he was in the compound when the shelling started: ‘I don’t know when exactly the first shell hit us, but the shells were getting close by 8 a.m., and I called the IDF coordination unit at Erez to try to get them to stop it. The pattern of shelling was that it started over the Gaza Training College, in the western part of the UNRWA compound, and then the shelling moved to the west and walked its way over the whole compound. It was hitting the compound itself for around an hour’.
“Anderson, a retired US Army officer, speculated that the IDF was ‘walking’ the artillery fire across the area – firing shells along an arc at evenly spaced intervals. He showed Human Rights Watch researchers three spent artillery shell casings, all of them light green to indicate white phosphorus, which he said had landed in the compound, as well as six impact holes inside the compound, apparently where the spent shells had landed. Human Rights Watch recorded four of the six impacts: one through a warehouse roof; one through a metal wall and fence; one in a manhole in the parking lot; and one in the corner of the parking lot.
“According to Anderson, the shell that hit the parking lot manhole failed to explode, leaving the canister with white phosphorus still inside. A UN de-mining team later removed the shell from the area, he said.
“Human Rights Watch also viewed photographs of the spent artillery shells and unexploded ordnance that the UN reportedly recovered at the UNRWA compound after it had been struck. The light green 155mm shells were correctly marked for white phosphorus. According to the photos, white phosphorus wedges also landed inside the compound, as had shrapnel from at least one high explosive artillery shell. [a footnote indicates that The markings, partially unreadable, on the three shells viewed by Human Rights Watch in the UNRWA compound were: PB91KO1B-035; 155 H/…OJ M…825A1/PB 91…011 0…5A; and …H018-02…]
According to Anderson, the main concern just after the attack was that the compound’s 100,000-liter diesel fuel depotand six fuel tanker trucks, two of them full at the time, might catch on fire: ‘Two of the fuel tankers were parked right next to the wall of one of the warehouses that caught fire. I saw a burning fragment land under one of the trucks, and I and a colleague ran out with fire extinguishers, thinking we could put it out, but we couldn’t. So we had to bat it away from under the truck with sticks. We figured we’d be dead anyway if the truck went up. Then there was another shell, I saw that one myself, right overhead, and the shell landed just at the end of the parking lot. After that we evacuated everyone, and we drove the fuel trucks around 800 meters down the road to an empty lot that had already been shelled. The people here only had light injuries, we were lucky’.
Human Rights Watch saw a small crater, which Anderson said was made by a spent artillery shell, roughly 10 meters from where the fuel tanker trucks had been parked.
According to Claire Mitchell, UNRWA field legal officer, five senior UNRWA staff made dozens of phone calls to the IDF during the attack, and she compiled a log of UNRWA’s communications with the IDF at the time. ‘Scott [Anderson] started calling at around 8 a.m. to Major Aviad Silberman at Erez [crossing]’, she said. ‘Aidan O’Leary making calls regularly from shortly before 9 a.m. to Uri Singer and [retired Brigadier-] General [Baruch] Spiegel [head of the IDF’s Humanitarian Coordination Cell] in Tel Aviv’.
Anderson confirmed the multiple phone calls to the IDF. ‘I was calling the IDF guys at Erez all the time’, he said. ‘They said they were trying to stop the shelling. It looks like there was nothing they could do.” He added, ‘I know that in the US Army it would not take that long to get the artillery fire to stop’.
UNRWA Gaza director John Ging said that he too had spoken with the IDF at the time of the attack. He and other UNRWA staff said they had given the IDF the GPS coordinates of all UN installations in Gaza before Operation Cast Lead began. Speaking at a press conference on January 15, Ging said that after the first shells hit the compound, UNRWA alerted the IDF of the exact location of its fuel trucks. He insisted that ‘there were no militants in the compound; there was no firing from the compound’.
According to the IDF’s chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Beneyahu, the IDF has started an investigation. ‘If it becomes clear that we returned shots at the source of fire, we will say so, and if it turns out we operated by mistake, we will not hesitate to confess’, he said…
Beit Lahiya UNRWA School
“Around 6 a.m. on Saturday, January 17, the IDF starting firing at least three artillery shells, which Human Rights Watch determined to be white phosphorus, over and in the immediate vicinity of a UN-run elementary school in Beit Lahiya. At the time, the school was housing roughly 1,600 people, who had sought refuge there from neighboring areas. Human Rights Watch found no indication that IDF units or Palestinian armed groups were operating in the area at the time.
“The attack killed two young brothers when an already-detonated white phosphorus shell landed in a classroom on the top floor of the school; the shell also severely injured their mother and a cousin.
“The shelling also spread burning white phosphorus wedges all over the school and surrounding area, wounding 12 other people, setting fire to a classroom where displaced persons were sheltering, and damaging a nearby market. Human Rights Watch visited the site on January 23, six days after the attack, and saw white phosphorus wedges still burning when children dug them out of the sand.
“As with all the UNRWA sites that came under Israeli attack, the UN had transmitted the GPS coordinates of the Beit Lahiya school to the IDF before the military operation began.
” ‘The Israeli army knew exactly our GPS coordinates and they would have known that hundreds of people had taken shelter there’, said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness. ‘When you have a direct hit into the third floor of a UN school, there has to be an investigation to see if a war crime has been committed’.
“To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, the IDF did not conduct ground operations in the vicinity of the school at any time during Operation Cast Lead. Human Rights Watch’s investigations in the area did not uncover any physical evidence to suggest a confrontation with Palestinian armed groups, such as bullet holes, bullet casings or tank tracks”.
These accounts are published in Section IV of the HRW report, “Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza”, which can be viewed in full here .