With fighting all around them, Israeli troops knocked on the door of the Samouni clan in Gaza City last weekend and told them to leave, directing them to the building owned by a relative. Twenty-four hours later, three shells slammed into the structure where dozens of people were huddling, survivor accounts said.
A newly released UN report said 30 people died in the shelling, citing four unidentified survivors who spoke by telephone.
It called the shelling “one of the gravest incidents” to happen since Israeli infantry and armored troops entered Gaza last Sunday to quell Hamas rockets on Israel.
Other accounts given to The Associated Press and an Israeli human rights group provided lower casualty figures, but all agreed that shells hit the large, unfinished warehouse-like building a day after Israeli troops told them to get inside it for their safety.
The shelling allegedly occurred on Monday. It took place in the Zeitoun neighborhood, which suffered massive destruction from air strikes and shelling from the ground.
The report, by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), did not say the attack was deliberate.
The Israeli military rebutted the reports that troops had forced civilians into a particular building, which was then shelled.
“We don’t warn people to go to other buildings. This is not something we do,” spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovich said. “We don’t know this case. We don’t know that we attacked it. It’s not confirmed that we attacked it.”
Allegra Pacheco, a senior UN official in Jerusalem who helped draft the report on the incident for OCHA, said: “We are not making an accusation of deliberate action” by the Israelis.
“We are just saying the facts. In Gaza, no civilian is safe. As long as violence continues, civilians will be injured and killed,” she said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the UN report should be the basis for an investigation of “war crimes elements.”
Her spokesman, Rupert Colville, said the “war crimes elements” would refer to allegations that Israel impeded medical teams trying to care for wounded civilians and failed to care for those injured in the attack.
Pillay told an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that any harm to Israeli civilians by Hamas rockets was unacceptable, but it did not excuse abuses carried out by Israeli forces in response.
Pillay went further in an interview with the BBC, saying the incident “appears to have all the elements of war crimes.”
If an investigation found that Israel intentionally attacked a building it knew was filled with civilians, that could constitute a war crime as well.
UN human rights and humanitarian officials declined to comment on that possibility, saying a full examination of the facts was needed.
Another Israeli military spokesman, Major Jacob Dallal, said an investigation of the UN allegations showed the building was not deliberately targeted.
“What we understand, there was no pinpoint attack on that building in question. There is a lot of exchanges of fire. Gaza is a war zone. It’s combat.”