JERUSALEM — Israeli shelling killed at least 15 Palestinians who’d sought shelter from fighting in a UN school and 17 more died in an airstrike on a street market on Wednesday, the Gaza health ministry said, in a day of bloodshed 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 that 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,” Krahenbuhl said.
Witnesses at the school in the Jabalya refugee camp said that 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.
“No place is safe, neither homes nor schools,” said Haleem Ghabin, who was holding her baby son. “What shall I say to the world? Find us a solution, we are defenseless civilians and children.”
The Israeli army, which had warned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to leave their homes for their own safety, said that “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 that the incident was “still being investigated.”
With the Gaza Strip’s borders shut and areas of combat gradually expanding, Palestinians in the densely populated 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.
“Where will we go next?,” Aishe Abu Drabeh, 56, told the Associated Press at the school compound after the shelling. “We fled and they are following us.”
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.
“UNRWA is overwhelmed,” said Chris Gunness, spokesman for UNRWA, which assists Palestinian refugees. “Our shelters are overflowing, and tens of thousands may soon be in the streets without food or shelter if the attacks continue.”
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, the second deadly strike on a U.N. shelter in a week after 16 Palestinians were killed in another school on Thursday.
“It is outrageous,” Ban said. “It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice.”
There were also condemnations for Hamas. On Tuesday UNRWA said that rockets had been found hidden in one of its schools, the third such incident during the conflict. Gunness called it a “flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises,” adding that it had “endangered civilians.”
“We also condemn those responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza,” NSC spokeswoman Meehan said in Washington. “All of these actions, and similar ones earlier in the conflict, are inconsistent with the U.N.’s neutrality. This violence underscores the need to achieve a cease-fire as soon as possible.”
In another lethal incident Wednesday, an air strike 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.
An airstrike hit a warehouse on the edge of the neighborhood, and a second strike hit about 500 meters away, where people had gone out, many of them women and children. Among the victims was a Palestinian news photographer who was wearing a press vest at the time.
“The area is now like a bloodbath, everyone is wounded and killed,” Salim Qadoum, 26, told the Associated Press. “People lost their limbs and were screaming for help. It’s a massacre.”
In earlier shellings across the Gaza Strip, multiple members of several families were reported killed in several areas after their homes were struck.
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.
The Israeli army said it lost three soldiers Wednesday as they worked to uncover a Hamas tunnel with an opening inside a house. Explosive devices detonated in the tunnel and in the building, causing it to collapse, the military said.
The army also acknowledged that five soldiers who were killed Monday had been surprised by Hamas gunmen who’d tunneled into Israel and attacked an army lookout post, entering it from behind through a gate that was left open.
The military had initially said the soldiers died in an anti-tank missile strike, but after Hamas circulated video footage from the attack showing the gunmen entering the outpost, shooting a soldier and trying to make off with his body, the chief army spokesman conceded that the undetected infiltration in broad daylight had exposed a “vulnerability” in army defenses.
A total of 56 soldiers have died in the Gaza offensive, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker killed in Israel by rocket strikes.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com