UNITED NATIONS — Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that “all available evidence” suggested that Israeli artillery had hit a United Nations school in Gaza full of civilians who thought they were in a safe zone.
“Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children,” the secretary general told reporters in San Jose, Costa Rica, according to a transcript provided by his office. It was Mr. Ban’s strongest comments to date on attacks on United Nations installations in Gaza, where Palestinians have been taking shelter. Six United Nations staff members have been killed in the current conflict so far.
United Nations officials said that they had informed Israel 17 times of the precise location of the school and that there were civilians sheltering there, including once at 8:50 p.m., just hours before the attack on Wednesday.
Responding to Israeli statements that its soldiers were responding to rocket fire from near the school, the United Nations deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, drew attention to the Geneva Convention, which in laying out the rules of war unequivocally prohibits attacks on schools and hospitals.
“This is a moment where you really have to say ‘enough is enough,’ and you have to search for the right words to convince those who have the power to stop this,”
Mr. Eliasson said.
Israeli soldiers need to consider where civilians are seeking refuge, even as they retaliate against Hamas rockets, Mr. Eliasson told reporters at an emotionally charged briefing at United Nations headquarters. The vast majority of those killed in Gaza have been civilians, he said, in sharp contrast to Israel, where only a handful of civilians have been killed and soldiers have made up the majority of the death toll.
Asked repeatedly whether Israel would be held accountable for possible war crimes, Mr. Eliasson would say only:
“The scale of the response is of such a violent nature, questions of accountability come up.”
He said also that officials in Mr. Ban’s office were drafting a series of options to protect civilians, in response to a vague request from the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, for an international protection force. Security Council diplomats had asked Mr. Ban’s office to present options, and his legal advisers had met with Palestinian diplomats in recent days, but they were still far from coming up with anything specific. Among the parallels that have been floated are examples of international troops dispatched to East Timor and Kosovo.
United Nations diplomats have said privately that nothing of the sort can happen before a cease-fire and a promise from Hamas to stop firing rockets at Israel.
“We have discussed the issue with the Security Council,” Mr. Eliasson said. “It’s not an easy thing to think about.”