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Israeli military defends attack on UN school building, says it targeted 30 militants

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Facing international criticism of its conduct of the war and its recent attack on a UN school building used as a shelter in Nusserat, the Israeli military has vigorously defended the operation, insisting that its forces were targeting a group of about 30 militants based in three classrooms.

Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hajari said Israel carried out a “precision, intelligence-based strike against dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists holed up in a UN school.” He said some of the militants were involved in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Admiral Hajari said the operation followed “three days of surveillance” and was aimed at destroying three specific classrooms in the school, where the Israeli military believed about 30 militants were hiding and planning their operations.

He said Israel twice postponed its attack on the school building because it had confirmed the presence of civilians in the area.

“Terrorists in the school were planning more attacks against Israelis, some of which were imminent,” he said. “We stopped a ticking time bomb.”

Gaza health officials said the attack killed at least 40 people, including women and children.

To support its claim that the attack was against a military target, the Israeli military released the names of nine victims it said were linked to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Two of them were linked to Hamas and seven to Islamic Jihad, according to the Israeli military. General Hajari said the military was working to identify the others.

Under international law, intentionally attacking civilians not taking part in hostilities is a crime, but the rules allow for “incidental” and “involuntary” harm (including civilian deaths) if they are deemed proportionate, meaning they cannot be excessive compared to the military advantage gained. However, experts say this is a somewhat vague standard that is open to multiple interpretations.

The UN human rights office said in a statement that the Israeli attack on Nusserat “demonstrated a failure by the military to strictly adhere” to “international humanitarian law, in particular the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack.” Even if armed Palestinians used the school as a base of operations, as Israel claims, it could not “justify a violation of these principles,” the office added.

Admiral Hajari said the Israeli army complied with international law when carrying out the attack and accused some media of falling into a Hamas propaganda trap.

Admiral Hagari reiterated an argument Israel has used throughout the war, accusing Hamas of ambushing its fighters among civilians and using them as shields. He said the strategy of Hamas militants hiding inside UN facilities was a war crime in itself.

“Hamas is waging war from schools and hospitals. Hamas hopes that international law and public sympathy will provide cover for their military activities, which is why they systematically launch attacks from schools, UN facilities, hospitals and mosques,” he said.

John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator, told CNN on Thursday that Israel “absolutely” has the right to strike Hamas and that Hamas militants are known to “hide in civilian facilities,” but he noted that this does not mean Israel is solely responsible. He said the United States is discussing the incident with Israeli authorities but has not independently verified the facts of the incident. “We are asking for more information and more context,” Mr. Kirby said.

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