Jerusalem, Nov. 24 (Reuters): The UN today challenged Israel’s contention that Palestinians had fired at Israeli troops from a UN compound during a gunbattle in which soldiers shot dead a UN official.
“Preliminary findings from our inquiry indicate that this is not true. This claim is incredibly incorrect,” said Paul McCann, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
He said a UN investigator would arrive from the UN headquarters in New York later in the day to launch a probe into the death of Iain Hook, a British UNRWA official killed in Jenin refugee camp on Friday.
The Israeli army admitted its forces killed Hook, 54, saying they mistook an object he was holding in his hand for a weapon during a skirmish with Palestinian gunmen in the vicinity of the UNWRA compound.
Commenting on its own preliminary investigation of the Jenin shooting, the army said Palestinian gunmen were firing at troops from inside the UNRWA compound and through a nearby alley during an operation to arrest a wanted Islamic militant.
“It appears that two soldiers saw in the UNRWA compound — from where Palestinian gunmen were shooting at Israeli forces — a man with an object that looked like a gun and they fired at him,” the army said.
The army said the gunmen also hid behind civilians in two instances during the clash. In one of them, it said, a Palestinian gunman took cover behind a woman holding an UNWRA flag. Three army jeeps and a soldier wearing a bullet-proof vest were hit by Palestinian fire from the vicinity of the UNRWA compound during the firefight, the army said.
Hook managed an UNRWA project to rebuild the camp, which was heavily damaged in an Israeli sweep for militants in April after suicide bombings in Israel. The UN has accused Israeli forces of delaying an ambulance summoned to evacuate Hook. The army said a military ambulance was sent to his aid but that when it arrived he was already dead.
In Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers have blocked off the Church of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus, to prevent militants from hiding in the shrine as they did during an army invasion of Bethlehem in April.
The US did not express opposition to the Bethlehem operation, but called on Israel to ensure it was carried out speedily and to avoid harming Palestinian civilians.
A US state department spokesman said on Friday progress on “realising Palestinian aspirations”, diplomatic code for setting up a Palestinian state, was impossible as long as Palestinians carried out attacks like Thursday’s suicide bombing.
In fresh violence at the weekend, two Palestinian suicide bombers blew up an explosives-laden fishing boat close to an Israeli patrol craft in waters near the Gaza Strip, wounding four sailors and slightly damaging the naval vessel. The militant Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for the bombing in which two of its operatives, aged 19 and 21, were killed.
At least 1,677 Palestinians and 662 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000 after a deadlock in negotiations for a final peace treaty.