Israeli tank shells hit a compound housing a United Nations school in the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens seeking shelter from street clashes, Palestinian officials said.
The UN said shells struck as staff were trying to arrange a pause in the hostilities so they could evacuate the civilians from the compound in the northern town of Beit Hanoun.
The Israeli military suggested Hamas rockets may have been to blame for the incident.
Kamel al-Kafarne, who was in the school, said the UN was putting people on buses when three tank shells struck.
“We were about to get out of the school, then they hit the school. They kept on shelling it,” he said.
It was the fourth time a UN facility has been hit in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, since the conflict began on 8 July.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has said it has found militant rockets inside two vacant schools in Gaza.
While Israel suggested Hamas rockets had caused the deaths at Beit Haroun school, the Palestinian Red Crescent said that Israeli shells had hit the compound.
“We can’t confirm that this is a result of errant fire. In any case, we do not target UN facilities,” military spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner said. He added the military had urged the UN and the Red Cross to evacuate the school for three days leading up to the incident.
The UN said it was trying to do just that when the school was shelled. Spokesman Chris Gunness said the UN asked the Israeli military for a lull in fighting to allow for the school’s evacuation but did not hear back.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said UN staff were among the casualties and demanded that Israel and Hamas abide by international humanitarian law, respect “the sanctity of civilian life, the inviolability of UN premises” and protect humanitarian workers”. He said more than 100,000 Gazans have sought refuge in UNRWA facilities. “Today’s attack underscores the imperative for the killing to stop – and to stop now,” Mr Ban said during a visit to Iraq.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum claimed Israel was targeting displaced people and “committing massacres”.
Dozens of other people were also killed in a day of heavy fighting throughout the coastal territory, raising the Palestinian death toll in the conflict to at least 788, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.
Israel has lost 32 soldiers, all since 17 July, when it widened its air campaign into a ground invasion. Two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel have also been killed by rocket or mortar fire.
With the number of casualties growing, the international community has stepped up efforts to broker a ceasefire. But Hamas is insisting on the lifting of the seven-year-old blockade, imposed when the Islamist militant group seized Gaza from the western-backed government of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel claims the war is meant to halt rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza and destroy a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels.
Israel imposed the blockade in 2006 after Hamas and other militants abducted an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid. It tightened the siege in 2007 after Hamas seized power from forces loyal to Mr Abbas, but had eased some of the restrictions in recent years.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking after a meeting with Egyptian officials in Cairo, urged Hamas to agree a ceasefire, “without preconditions for the sake of the people in Gaza”.