A spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) charged Thursday that the IDF struck its Gaza City compound using controversial white phosphorus shells. The United Nations humanitarian aid agency is responsible for distributing food, medicines and other essential supplies in Gaza.
According to Jerusalem-based spokesman Chris Gunness, the humanitarian aid agency's warehouse was set ablaze and at least three people were injured, including one firefighter. Contrary to a report posted by Ynet, Gunness said some 700 people who were inside the inner compound when the building was hit were immediately evacuated. "After the attack they were sent to stay at a nearby school."
Guness told Israel National News that he could not be sure that white phosphorus had been used, but added, "According to our international staff members, who were eyewitnesses, it looks like phosphorus, it smells like phosphorus and it burns like phosphorus." He called for an international probe into the attack.
"Let there be an impartial investigation, let the facts speak for themselves, and where there have been violations of international humanitarian law, let those responsible be brought to justice," Gunness said.
When asked how his staff knew that the shells had been fired by IDF soldiers, Gunness acknowledged that he had no way to confirm the information. "That is the assessment of the international staff on the ground," he said, "but this is why there needs to be an impartial investigation. Let's find out."
IDF sources said Thursday afternoon that anti-tank missiles were fired at Israeli troops from the area of the UNRWA complex, prompting return fire. Five firefighting trucks were subsequently sent to the area from the Erez Crossing to help combat the blaze, according to the IDF.
The UNRWA complex is located close to Islamic University, in central Gaza City, where IDF ground forces have encountered heavy resistance from Hamas and its allied terrorists. Regardless, Gunness said there was no reason that Israel should have shelled the building.
"We gave to the IDF all of our GPS coordinates for all of our facilities in Gaza," he said. "They knew that there were five fully-laden fuel trucks in that compound – and they would also have known that hundreds of people had taken refuge there."
Barak: Hamas Firing at IDF From Next to UN Buildings
Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters following a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Thursday afternoon that Hamas terrorists are deliberately positioning themselves next to U.N. buildings.
The Defense Minister said after the meeting, which included International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Jakob Kellenberger, that Hamas has continued to use Gaza civilians as human shields while "firing at IDF soldiers from next to U.N. installations."
He added that "IDF soldiers – in self-defense – have responded, and will respond, to any attempt to attack them."
Barak assured Ban and Kellenberger, however, that the IDF would do "its utmost to prevent injury to non-combatants and will allow all necessary assistance to the U.N. organizations' humanitarian activities."
UNRWA Continuing Aid Distribution
Gunness meanwhile denied a report by the French APF news agency quoting local UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna as saying that the agency was suspending its operations in the region. "We will continue to distribute aid wherever we can," he said. "Supplies will be delivered straight to the food distribution centers and to the hospitals and health centers that remain open wherever they can."
The UNRWA spokesman likewise played down a report that the agency's warehouse contained "hundreds of tons" of humanitarian aid when it was hit, a statement made by an anonymous UNRWA worker quoted by AFP.
"The main warehouse is ablaze, as is the mechanical workshop where they fix the cars," said Gunness, "but the warehouse certainly wasn't full. As to how much was there, I can't really tell you. But the palettes that we use to distribute the humanitarian aid to the people are on fire, a tragic symbolism for where UNRWA stands in Gaza."
UN Sec'y-Gen: 'Unbearable' Death Toll
Ban, who had been scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni just minutes after the complex was hit, called for an immediate ceasefire and for the opening of the Gaza crossings.
Ban told reporters following the meeting that the death toll in Gaza had reached "an unbearable point," noting that any ceasefire "hinges on the political will of both sides." He added that Israeli citzens have the right to live without fear of rocket attacks, noting that "this too must stop permanently."
He also called Hamas's use of private homes and civilian institutions for shelter, and civilians as human shields in combat situations "unacceptable."