TEL AVIV, Israel, and NUSEIRAT, Gaza Strip — The Israeli military made improper use of a U.S.-made bomb in a deadly airstrike Thursday on a United Nations school compound in Gaza, according to current and former U.S. defense officials who analyzed an image of the bomb remnants documented by NPR at the site.

The munition used was a GBU-39 small-diameter bomb, according to a Pentagon official and a former U.S. Air Force official. It is the same kind of bomb, according to The New York Times, that Israel used in an airstrike last month that killed dozens of displaced civilians at a tent camp in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, an incident Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a “tragic mishap.”

Israel’s army said it was targeting a group of militants inside two classrooms at a U.N. school in Nuseirat, a central Gaza refugee camp. But the 2 a.m. strike killed at least 32 people, including seven children, according to Dr. Khalil Doqran, director of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in central Gaza.

Families displaced in the war are sheltering in the school. At the hospital morgue, NPR documented one body bag labeled as containing the body parts of five children.

The Israeli army said the militants it was targeting had participated in the deadly Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel and were plotting attacks from inside the school. Army spokesman Peter Lerner said the military called off the strike twice to minimize collateral damage, and that he was unaware of any civilian casualties in the strike.

The Pentagon official told NPR that Israel had used the bomb improperly because the bomb is intended to cause low collateral damage but caused a high number of casualties.

“Israel is using the most advanced, precise and effective bombs the U.S. produces like a cudgel,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Israel’s conduct.

Wes Bryant, the former Air Force official, said the U.S. military would have most likely called off such a strike where militants were holed up in a U.N. school housing displaced civilians because the estimated number of civilian casualties would be high.

“What strikes me most about these most recent strikes by the IDF [Israeli military], in which large numbers of civilians have again been killed, is that they are using munitions intended to be both precision and low collateral damage — but they are not employing them in a manner in which those qualities are applied,” said Bryant, a retired master sergeant and former special operations joint terminal attack controller in the elite special warfare branch of the U.S. Air Force.

The U.S. State Department called on Israel to name those killed in the strike.

The Israeli military declined NPR's request for comment on the kind of munitions used, but identified the names of nine men it said were militants killed in the strike.

The U.N. school in Nuseirat is sheltering families that had been displaced multiple times: those who fled north Gaza to Rafah in south Gaza at the start of the war, and who then fled Israel’s offensive on Rafah to the U.N. school.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said the school compound is sheltering 6,000 displaced people at the moment.

“Claims that armed groups may have been inside the shelter are shocking. We are however unable to verify these claims,” he said in a statement on the social media platform X.

One family had reached the school two weeks ago and was killed while they were sleeping, relatives told NPR.

In the aftermath of the strike, rubble covered the school courtyard and blood covered the school staircase. Two boys with head and leg injuries remained in the school compound. Children were collecting wood from among the rubble to use as firewood, and U.N. officials were trying to repair a door and windows of the compound for families still sheltering there.

At the Al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital morgue, a mother grieved over her dead son’s body. The hospital director said more than 140 people have been killed since Wednesday in central Gaza as Israel launched a new offensive in the area.

“The scene inside the emergency room inside Al-Aqsa Hospital is even worse than yesterday. They have no chance to reorganize from ... yesterday’s events, and now they are struck with mass casualties after mass casualties,” said Karin Huster, a medical adviser for humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, who is at the hospital. “Patients are on the floor. There is blood everywhere ... dead bodies are not being taken to the morgue because the facility is overwhelmed.”

NPR's Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv; NPR producer Anas Baba reported from Gaza.

NPR’s Tom Bowman and Aya Batrawy contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR



The Israeli military dropped a U.S.-made bomb onto a United Nations school compound in Gaza sheltering thousands of displaced civilians earlier today. Israel said it was targeting a group of militants at the school. The director of a Gaza hospital says dozens of people, including children, were killed in the strike. NPR photographed fragments of the bomb, and a Pentagon official says that Israel used the device improperly. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Tel Aviv. Daniel, can you just start by walking us through the strike today? What exactly happened?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel's army says this was around 2:00 a.m. this morning. It was targeting a group of militants. Some of them, the army says, participated in the October 7 attack on southern Israel which sparked this war, and the army says that the military called off the strike twice before to minimize collateral damage and that it did go ahead with the strike anyway. And according to the director of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in central Gaza, at least 32 people, including seven children were killed in this strike. The U.N. says 6,000 civilians who were displaced in the war were sheltering in the school where the strike took place.

And our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, visited the hospital morgue. He saw a body bag labeled as containing the body parts of five children. And he also visited the U.N. school that was struck.


ESTRIN: He saw children in the courtyard with injuries. He saw U.N. workers cleaning up the debris.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: This was a playground yard that was sheltering many people here in tents before, but now it turned into, like, a war zone.

ESTRIN: And he also videotaped parts of the bomb that were still left there at the school. There were serial numbers on these parts, on these shrapnel bits. And so we asked weapons experts to identify what the bomb was.

SUMMERS: And, Daniel, what were you all able to learn about the type of weaponry that Israel used in the strike?

ESTRIN: It was a GBU-39 small diameter bomb. This is according to a Pentagon official and a former U.S. Air Force official who looked at the images that our producer took. This is the same kind of bomb, Juana, that, according to reporting by The New York Times, was used by Israel in a recent air strike, you may recall, that killed dozens of displaced civilians in Gaza at a tent camp. This was a strike that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu called a tragic mishap.

Now, the Pentagon official I spoke with said that in the strike today, Israel used the bomb improperly. The official said the bomb is intended to cause low collateral damage, but instead, it caused a high number of casualties and was used in a school where Israel knew that there were many people sheltering there. I also spoke to a former U.S. Air Force official, Wes Bryant, who said that the U.S. military would have most likely called off such a strike if it were up to them, where you have militants holed up in a U.N. school, but you also have displaced civilians there. And U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller is now calling on Israel to be fully transparent about this strike and to name the people who were killed in it.

SUMMERS: So, Daniel, at this point, how is Israel responding to these charges?

ESTRIN: Well, the Israeli military has so far put out nine names of people they say were militants in Hamas and Islamic Jihad and put out their photos, said those were people who were killed in the strike and that they're still identifying others. Israel says that these militants should not have been operating inside classrooms and that they were planning attacks on Israelis. Israel says, we stopped a ticking time bomb. But unlike the strike a few weeks ago, which Israel has called a tragic mishap, the army has made no mention of civilians killed in this strike. The Israeli military spokesman, Daniel Hagari, said, we will pursue anyone who took part in the massacre of October 7.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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