JERUSALEM — Israeli shelling killed at least 15 Palestinians who had sought shelter from fighting in a United Nations school, and 17 more died in an airstrike on a street market Wednesday, the Gaza health ministry said, in a day of violence that prompted criticism from the White House and expressions of outrage from the United Nations.
Defying international calls for a cease-fire, the Israeli Security Cabinet authorized the army to press ahead with its offensive against the militant Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, even as officials worked to arrange an end to more than three weeks of fighting.
An Israeli team held brief talks in Cairo, Egyptian officials said, and a Palestinian delegation was expected to travel to Egypt later in the week. But efforts to negotiate a cease-fire have been complicated by disputes over the terms and the absence of a mediator trusted by both sides. The United States has pressed Israel during previous offensives in Lebanon and Gaza to end hostilities after incidents in which there were high numbers of civilian casualties, but the United States appears to have less influence with both sides this time.
The shelling of the school, operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, prompted the White House’s harshest criticism of Israeli actions to date. “The United States condemns the shelling of a UNRWA school in Gaza, which reportedly killed and injured innocent Palestinians — including children — and U.N. humanitarian workers,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said. “We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in U.N.-designated shelters in Gaza.”
The U.N. agency’s director, Pierre Krahenbuhl, accused the Israelis of violating international law by shelling the school. He said that on 17 occasions, most recently Tuesday night, the agency had given the Israeli army the precise location of the school and notified it that thousands were sheltering there. He said agency staff had visited the site, analyzed fragments and craters left by the shells and concluded that Israeli artillery had hit the school. “I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces,” Mr. Krahenbuhl said.
Witnesses at the school in the Jabalya refugee camp said shells struck the compound, which had been sheltering hundreds of families who had fled their homes, before dawn as many slept. The shells blew out the front wall of one classroom and crashed through the ceiling of another on the second floor. More than 100 people were wounded.
“People were martyred before our eyes. They were dismembered,” Abdel Karim Masamha, 27, whose family had fled fighting in the northern Gaza Strip, told the Reuters news agency.
The Israeli army, which had warned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to leave their homes for their own safety, said, “Militants fired mortar shells at soldiers from the vicinity of the UNRWA school, and the soldiers responded by firing toward the sources of fire.” The military said the incident was “still being investigated.”
With the Gaza Strip’s borders shut and areas of combat gradually expanding, Palestinians in the densely crowded territory say they have nowhere to escape the bombardments and shelling, and that heeding the army’s warnings to leave their homes has brought no protection.
The 3,300 Palestinians at the school were among the more than 240,000 Gaza residents who the United Nations says have been displaced by the fighting, sheltering in U.N. facilities or with host families.
Overcrowding at U.N. shelters is raising concerns about the outbreak of epidemics.
Mr. Krahenbuhl said the conflict had “moved beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone. We are in the realm of accountability. I call on the international community to take deliberate international political action to put an immediate end to the continuing carnage.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking in Costa Rica, condemned the shelling of the school as outrageous and unjustifiable,, the second deadly strike on a U.N. shelter in a week, after 16 Palestinians were killed in another school last Thursday.
There were also condemnation for Hamas, which on Tuesday was accused of hiding rockets in a U.N. school, the third such incident during the conflict. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, called it a “flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises,” adding that it had “endangered civilians.”
In another lethal incident Wednesday, an airstrike on a market area in the devastated Shuja’iya neighborhood of Gaza City killed 17 people and wounded 150, health officials said. Witnesses said residents had ventured onto the streets during a four-hour halt in hostilities announced in some areas by the Israeli army, believing that the area was safe.
More than 1,300 Palestinians have died in the Israeli offensive, and more than 7,000 have been injured, according to health officials. The U.N. says three quarters of the dead were civilians, including more than 240 children.
A total of 56 Israeli soldiers have died in the Gaza offensive, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker killed in Israel by rocket strikes.united nations - israel - egypt - United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Africa - Palestinian territories - Ban Ki-Moon - North Africa - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - Gaza Strip - Hamas