Israeli tank shells hit a compound housing a UN school in the Gaza Strip, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens who were seeking shelter from fierce clashes on the streets outside.
Pools of blood stained the school courtyard in the northern town of Beit Hanoun, amid scattered books and belongings. There was a large scorch mark in the courtyard marking the place where one of the tank shells hit. Dozens of people, including children were wheeled into a nearby hospital as sirens wailed.
The strike occurred during a day of heavy fighting throughout the coastal territory. Israel says the war is meant to halt rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza and destroy a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels. International efforts to bring about a truce appeared elusive, with the violence continuing and Hamas reiterating its demand for a ceasefire that a crippling Egyptian and Israeli blockade on Gaza be lifted.
Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said the dead and injured in the school compound were among hundreds of people seeking shelter from heavy fighting in the area.
It was the fourth time a UN facility has been hit in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, since the Israeli operation began July 8.
UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, has said it has found militant rockets inside two vacant schools but the target of yesterday’s strike was not immediately clear.
The Israeli military said it was reviewing the incident, saying that rockets launched by Hamas had landed in the Beit Hanoun area during fighting with its forces, and that those rockets may be responsible for the deaths.
Israel insists it does its utmost to prevent civilian casualties but says Hamas puts Palestinians in danger by hiding arms and fighters in civilian areas. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum condemned the violence, saying Israel was targeting displaced people and “committing massacres.”
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness called on all sides “to respect the sanctity of civilian life, but also the inviolability of UN property”.
The deaths raised the overall Palestinian death toll in the conflict that began on July 8 to at least 751, al-Kidra said. Israel has lost 32 soldiers, all since July 17, when it widened its air campaign into a full-scale ground operation.
Two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel have also been killed by rocket or mortar fire. With the number of casualties growing on both sides, the international community has stepped up diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire.
But Hamas is insisting on the lifting of the seven-year-old blockade, imposed after the Islamist group won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament in the 2006 parliamentary elections, defeating the moderate Fatah. It has ruled the enclave ever since.
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