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Schools, Ambulances Not Spared in Israeli Attacks

by David Rabin

Because of "situation imposed upon us by the Palestinians"
(IPS) JERUSALEM -- As Israeli troops took control of the Tulkarem refugee camp in the West Bank, a UN ambulance team got word that a missile had hit a car in the camp, injuring four. Dr. Adnan Karmash immediately left for the camp with his team.

Karmash left the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) clinic after getting clearance from the Palestinian-Israeli military coordinator. "I was worried because it had become dark, but unlike our previous outing, there was no shooting. Then suddenly, we were fired on," he says.

"A bullet hit a UN guard who knew the camp well and was serving as our guide," Karmash says. The ambulance sped back to the clinic, but the worker Kalem Salem, father of four with a pregnant wife, bled to death.

"I don't understand it," Karmash says. "Our red lights were flashing and the ambulance was clearly marked." Karmash does not know who shot at the ambulance. But the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) expressed regret over the incident.

It was not an isolated case. According to the Red Crescent, one of its ambulance workers was killed about the same time and near that location. The worker had come out of his ambulance and was shot in the head.

Shooting at UN ambulances is not the only way UN rights are being violated by the IDF, UNRWA spokesperson Isa Qarra says. Three schools in Gaza city, including a school for blind children, have been damaged repeatedly by IDF missile attacks on an adjacent Palestinian police compound. The schools were marked with the UN insignia, lit up, and visible from the air and ground, Qarra says.

At one of these, the Al-Nour Rehabilitation Center for the Visually Impaired, IPS saw windows ripped from their frames, and the floor, tables and school material covered with debris. Walls had been pierced by shrapnel. All three schools are now closed. Al-Nour is the only specialized school for the blind in Gaza.

Most attacks on the police headquarters in Gaza have come at night, but the UNRWA official says an Israeli F-16 dropped a large bomb on the morning of Mar. 7. The bomb exploded within 200 meters of the schools where more than 3,000 children were present. "The kids were in panic," says Qarra. "Frightened parents rushed to the school to get their kids out. Fortunately, no one was physically hurt."

The UNRWA says that in recent incursions into Balata, Jenin, Tulkarem and Amari refugee camps in the West Bank, the IDF has temporarily taken over, and often damaged its schools. The buildings were used as detention facilities or as operational bases.

Commissioner-General for UNRWA Peter Hansen says he is "appalled at what appears to be an emerging pattern of IDF tactics that use UNRWA schools as military positions inside camps." But recent incursions "have been less vindictive," he says. "They have not used the schools there for detention facilities," he says. "I would like to believe they have a better awareness of their international obligations."

An Israeli military spokesman says "operational needs" dictate actions: "It's not our intention to violate the Geneva accords, but sometimes it's necessary, because of combat situations, to take such temporary measures." He called the ambulance attack tragic and added "we can only express regret." But innocent people have been hit "as a result of a situation imposed upon us by the Palestinians," he said. "There is no clean war."

Another IDF spokesman, Jacob Dallal, says "it's not the intent of the IDF to target schools or any other UN institution." But, he says, "we have the right to target Palestinian police compounds because of their involvement with terrorism."

Dallal says Israeli air attacks are usually accurate, "but of course they're not 100 per cent on target." Most of the bombing is done at night to minimize civilian casualties, he says.

But Dr. Aeyal Gross, a specialist in international law at the Tel Aviv University School of Law, says Israel is not operating within Geneva constraints. "Taking over schools for such purposes as detention in a way that disrupts school functioning is in violation of Israel's duty as an occupying power," he says. "Military necessity is not a defense here, I'm sure they could find other places to operate from."

Under the Geneva convention "medical workers have to be respected and protected," he says. "It's clearly against humanitarian law to attack ambulance workers, or any medical workers."

Peter Hansen says both Palestinians and Israelis feel under siege, "but each party has to contemplate how the other side sees the situation, then negotiate with empathy for what the other side is going through." If this does not happen, "we're capable of sliding downward towards the abyss," he says.

Israel should make a particular effort to think about what it means to be oppressed and persecuted, and "Israel ought to be able to do this given the Jews' long history of having been oppressed," he says.

Dallal says "we do have a sensitivity to oppression, we don't want innocent Palestinians to suffer." The Israelis always attempt to inflict the least amount of harm on civilians but, he says, "we can't sit idly by while Israelis are killed."

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Albion Monitor March 22, 2002 (

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