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Challenged on Gaza School Bombing Story, UN Attacks the Press, Confirms Staff Strike

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, February 5 -- Despite a widespread perception, created in part by the UN, that the civilians killed by a June 6 shelling by the Israeli Defense Forces in Jabaliya were inside a school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency, the UN has since had to issue a "clarification" that the shelling was entirely outside of the school. Inner City Press on Thursday asked UNRWA's John Ging if he has re-thought any of his public statements in the bombing's wake, for example that "those in the school were all families seeking refuge." Video here, from Minute 30:31.

   Ging responded that he wouldn't change a word he'd said, and instead blamed the Globe and Mail newspaper for a "sensationalist headline." Ging said that "all reputable media" -- he listed the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, the Guardian -- had "gotten it right."  But the Jerusalem Post article, for example, "noted that in two previous reports, the UN had stated that the IDF attack had been against the school and not outside the school." Ging's UN colleague Chris Gunness has accused the Jerusalem Post of misquoting him.

  During the hot-phase of the conflict, Ging and the UN bemoaned the absence of international media from the conflict zone. As one wag put it Thursday, be careful what you wish for. Beyond the mis-statement in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs January 7 report, the UN said nothing as the incident was widely described as a bombing of a UN school.

  In fact, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on January 17 said "Today, another United Nations school was hit by Israeli Defense Forces. I condemn in the strongest terms this outrageous attack which is the third time this has happened." This quote is on the UN's own ReliefWeb, here.

  Then a quiet "clarification" in a UN Field Report:

UN's John Ging on the screen, John Holmes in the seat, reputable media not shown

Clarification: While correctly reported on 6 January that Israeli shells landed outside an UNRWA school in Jabalia, resulting in an initial estimate of 30 fatalities, the Situation Report of 7 January referred to ‘the shelling of the UNRWA school in Jabalia.’ The Humanitarian Coordinator would like to clarify that the shelling, and all of the fatalities, took place outside rather than inside the school.

  One might have thought, given the controversy, that Ging would address it in his opening statement to the UN press corps on Thursday. He did not. Upon questioning, he acknowledged that the school was not hit, except by shrapnel, and that the school was not damaged. That was not the perception, and from this perspective the Globe and Mail is to be congratulated for dogged reporting, not denounced as "unreputable" by the UN. Click here for a more recent Globe and Mail story quoting the UN on the disappearance of its stealth envoy to Niger, the Canadian Robert Fowler.

  In fairness, the UN also mis-lead the press, or allowed misleading stories to stand uncorrected, earlier in the conflict when the UN's John Holmes equated civilian casualties with only those who were children and women (of the latter group, he said that they too might be with Hamas). How ever begrudgingly, Holmes acknowledged the controversy and amended his reporting, without denouncing the media which called him on it. Ging has been working hard, but attacking the press, or particular reporters, for zeroing in on inconsistencies would put Ging more squarely in the UN spin mold than has been the case so far.

  Inner City Press also asked Ging about reports of a strike by UNRWA workers in the West Bank. Ging confirmed the "industrial action," but denied that money was shifted to Gaza from the UNRWA West Bank budget, calling the staff union leadership ill-informed on this point. He said that now UNRWA and the Red Cross can get cash into Gaza, but no one else, including it seems the Palestinian Authority. Reportedly, Hamas brings in cash through tunnels from Egypt.  Ging emphasized the blockade of "plastic pellets to make plastic bags," and of paper to print UNRWA's human rights curriculum. The blocking of construction materials, including even plastic PVC pipes, seems equally serious. We'll have more on this.

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

Click here for Inner City Press Nov. 7 debate on the war in Congo

Watch this site, and this Oct. 2 debate, on UN, bailout, MDGs

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

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These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

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