US officials last night said that the shelling of a United Nations shelter in Gaza is “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible”.
In its strongest criticism yet of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, the Whitehouse spokesman also said the civilian casualties were “too high”, and called on Israel to do more to protect civilian life.
At least 16 people were killed and 90 others injured when shellfire hit a UN-run school designated as a civilian shelter in the Jabaliya district of Gaza City on Wednesday. The attack tore down the walls of two classrooms.
“The shelling of a UN facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last night.
He cited statements from the UN blaming Israel for the shelling, as well as the Israeli government’s acknowledgement that it was firing in the area of the school.
He said: “It does not appear there’s a lot of doubt about whose artillery was involved.”
Mr Earnest said Israel could be doing more to ensure the safety of civilians in the clashes between Israel and Hamas.
Israel says it will not stop its operation in Gaza until all tunnels – which militants use to infiltrate Israeli territory – have been destroyed.
A senior Israeli official has said the army has “neutralised” 70-80 per cent of Hamas’ offensive tunnel network into Israel.
Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would apologise if it discovered it was responsible for shelling the UN facility. “We have a policy – we don’t target civilians,” he said.
Meanwhile, the UN has also criticised Israel over the worsening situation in Gaza, saying people there are “facing a precipice”.
Some 425,000 Palestinians have been displaced by fighting, the UN says.
Since Israel began its offensive in Gaza on 8 July, 1,422 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry.
Some 58 Israelis have been killed in total – 56 soldiers and two civilians. A Thai worker in Israel has also died.
Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she believed Israel was deliberately defying international law in its military offensive in Gaza and that world powers should hold it accountable for possible war crimes.
She said Israel has attacked homes, schools, hospitals, Gaza’s only power plant and premises run by the UN in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Speaking at a news briefing in Geneva yesterday, she said: “I would say that they appear to be defying … deliberate defiance of obligations that international law imposes on Israel.
“This is why again and again I say we cannot allow impunity, we cannot allow this lack of accountability to go on.” Hamas militants in Gaza have also violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, Ms Pillay said.
She criticised the US for failing to use its influence with the Jewish state to halt the carnage.
“Many of my remarks have been directed to the United States since they are a party with influence over Israel to do much more to stop the killing, to bring the parties to the negotiating table. I’ve called also for an end to the (Israeli) blockade of Gaza”, she said.
Ms Pillay said she was appalled at officials in Washington consistently voting against resolutions on Israel.
“They have not only provided the heavy weaponry which is now being used by Israel in Gaza but they’ve also provided almost $1 billion in providing the “Iron Domes” to protect the Israelis from rocket attacks,” she said. “But no such protection has been provided to Gazans against the shelling.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday said he would not accept any ceasefire that stopped Israel completing the destruction of militants’ infiltration tunnels.
Ms Pillay said: “What we are witnessing in Gaza is the killing of entire families, and of children in the street either playing or trying to find safety. Waves and waves of ordinary people continue to flee their homes as the already weak infrastructure in Gaza caves in under the relentless bombardment.”
Israel says it is acting to stop the Hamas rocket attacks.
Previous UN commissions of inquiry into Israeli incursions into Gaza have called for the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), according to Ms Pillay, a former UN war crimes judge.
“Accountability and justice cannot be expected to be achieved through domestic proceedings. This is evident from the lack of adequate investigations by Israel and no attempt whatsoever made by the international community to implement the recommendations made by the Gaza fact-finding mission report.”
The UN Human Rights Council launched an international inquiry last week into violations and crimes that may have been committed by Israel during its latest offensive.