Israeli Military Defends Strike on Gaza School Building, Saying It Targeted 30 Militants

Facing international criticism of its conduct of the war and its latest strike on a U.N. school building being used as a shelter in Nuseirat, the Israeli military offered a full-throated defense of the operation, insisting its forces had targeted a group of about 30 militants using three classrooms as a base.

A military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said Israel had carried out “a precise, intelligence-based strike” against “dozens of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists hiding inside a U.N. school.” He said some of the militants had participated in the attacks against Israel on Oct. 7.

Admiral Hagari said the operation took place after “three days of surveillance” and was designed to destroy three specific classrooms in the school where the Israeli military believed roughly 30 militants were staying and planning operations.

Israel twice delayed the strike on the school complex because it had identified civilians in the area, he said.

“The terrorists inside the school were planning more attacks against Israelis, some of them imminent,” he said. “We stopped a ticking time bomb.”

Gazan health officials say at least 40 people were killed in the strike, including women and children.

To support its contention the strike was on a military target, the Israeli military released the names of nine people killed in the attack that it said were associated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Two of those named were associated with Hamas and seven with Islamic Jihad, according to the Israeli military. Admiral Hagari said the military is working on identifying others.

It is a crime under international law to intentionally target civilians who are not participating in the hostilities, but the rules do allow for “incidental” and “involuntary” damage — including civilian deaths — if they are deemed proportional, meaning that incidental damage can’t be excessive compared to the military advantage gained. It is a somewhat ambiguous standard that is open to interpretation, however, experts say.

The United Nations human rights office said in a statement that the Israeli strike in Nuseirat “suggests a failure” by the military to “ensure strict compliance with international humanitarian law, particularly the basic principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack.” The office added that even if armed Palestinians were using the school as a base of operations, as Israel claims, it would not “justify violations of these principles.”

Admiral Hagari said Israeli forces had complied with international law in carrying out the strike and accused some media outlets of falling for Hamas propaganda.

Reprising an argument Israel has used throughout the war, Admiral Hagari accused Hamas of embedding its fighters among civilians and using them as shields. He said the militant’s strategy of hiding inside U.N. facilities was itself a war crime.

“Hamas wages war from schools and hospitals,” he said. “Hamas hopes the international law and public sympathy will provide a shield for their military activities, which is why they systematically operate from schools, U.N. facilities, hospitals, and mosques.”

John F. Kirby, the United States National Security Council coordinator, in an interview on CNN on Thursday, said that Israel “absolutely” has a right to target Hamas and that it is known that its fighters “shelter in civilian facilities,” but noted that this does not give Israel carte blanche. He said that the U.S. is discussing the incident with Israeli authorities and has not independently verified what happened. “We are asking for more information, more context,” Mr. Kirby said.

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