U.N. now says at least 16 dead in Gaza school blasts

Palestinian children, wounded in an Israeli strike on a compound housing a U.N. school in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, are treated as they lay on the floor at the emergency room of the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, Thursday, July 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Palestinian children, wounded in an Israeli strike on a compound housing a U.N. school in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, are treated as they lay on the floor at the emergency room of the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, Thursday, July 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) AP

At least 15 Palestinians were killed and scores were wounded on Thursday when explosions ripped through the courtyard of a United Nations school where hundreds of people who had fled fighting in the Gaza Strip had taken shelter, local health officials said.

On Friday, the U.N. said the reported death toll was at least 16.

Authorities in Hamas-controlled Gaza said the school had been hit by Israeli shelling. The Israeli army said the school may have been struck by errant shells during fighting with militants, but it did not rule out the possibility that the compound had been hit by Hamas fire.

The incident came as the Palestinian death toll in the Israeli offensive against Hamas and allied militant factions in Gaza climbed to over 750.

A cease-fire to end more than two weeks of fighting remained elusive.

The continuing fighting sparked street protests across the West Bank, raising the possibility that Israel could face disturbances in areas where Palestinians and Israeli settlers often live in uncomfortable proximity to one another.

One person was killed when Israeli forces used live ammunition to disperse a crowd of thousands that had marched on a checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, and there were reports of stone-throwing protests near Jewish enclaves in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Police said 39 people were arrested in Jerusalem.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Cairo, spoke with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey in an effort to get them to persuade Hamas to agree to an Egyptian truce proposal.

But Khaled Mashal, the political leader of Hamas, said that its demand to lift border closures imposed on Gaza by Egypt and Israel had to be met first.

With Gaza hospitals struggling to cope with the large influx of people wounded in Israeli strikes, the World Health Organization called for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to evacuate seriously injured people from the territory and bring in life-saving medical supplies.

More than 5,000 people have been reported injured since the start of the Israeli offensive, according to local health officials.

“The coping capacity of health professionals is completely overstretched,” WHO said in a statement. “With the intensification of this conflict, WHO fears the health system will collapse.”

Witnesses at the school in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, where some 800 people had sought shelter, said they had been gathering for possible evacuation following intensified fighting in the area between Israeli forces and Hamas gunmen.

“We were waiting for buses to take us when the shells landed and cut the children to shreds,” an injured youth sobbed in a televised interview from a neighboring hospital.

Laila al Shinbari, a woman who was at the school, told Reuters that families had assembled in the courtyard. “All of us sat in one place when suddenly four shells landed on our heads,” she said, weeping. “Bodies were on the ground, (there was) blood and screams. My son is dead and all my relatives are wounded, including my other kids.”

The Gaza Health Ministry said that about 200 people were injured.

Panicked parents ran with their children to a neighboring hospital for treatment. Pools of blood stained the courtyard near a crater left by an apparent impact.

It was the fourth time a school of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, had been hit since Israel launched its offensive against Hamas on July 8. On Wednesday, five people were reported injured when a school in Deir al Balah was struck by Israeli shell fire, the agency said.

About 140,000 people who’ve fled areas of fighting are sheltering in UNRWA schools across the Gaza Strip, according to the agency.

Adnan Abu Hasna, an UNRWA spokesman in Gaza, said that with fighting intensifying around the Beit Hanoun school, the agency had been in touch with the Israeli army to arrange a halt to hostilities and an evacuation, but “we got no answer.”

Chris Gunness, the chief UNRWA spokesman, said that the agency had given the Israeli military the GPS coordinates of the school and that it was clearly marked with a U.N. flag on top of the building. Israeli permission to evacuate, he said, “never came.”

Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, the chief army spokesman, told Israeli Channel Ten television that there had been intensified activity in the area by Hamas fighters, who fired on Israeli forces, and that the army had also identified “Hamas fire landing in the area of the school.” A military official said that Hamas gunmen fired anti-tank missiles at Israeli troops.

“Apparently there was errant fire there, either by us or Hamas,” Almoz said. “We also fired there, and it could be that there is an errant shell, but we don’t rule out the possibility that this was Hamas fire.”

An army statement issued later said that militants had opened fire at Israeli forces from the area of the school, and that the troops returned fire “to the sources of shooting.” The statement said that earlier, the army had granted a four-hour “humanitarian time window” for evacuation, and that Hamas had prevented civilians from leaving, using them and the U.N. building as shields.

Israeli shelling outside a U.N. school where people were sheltering killed more than 40 people during a previous round of fighting with Hamas in 2009. During an Israeli campaign against the Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon in 1996, Israeli artillery rounds struck a U.N. compound where people had taken refuge, killing more than 100.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the incident at the Beit Hanoun school “underscores the need to end the violence and to achieve a sustainable cease-fire and enduring resolution to the crisis in Gaza as soon as possible.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said U.N. 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 U.N. premises,” and protect humanitarian workers.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Council for Human Rights voted to launch an international inquiry into alleged violations of international law by Israel during its Gaza offensive. Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the council that “there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”

Palestinians reported six bodies pulled from rubble Thursday following heavy Israeli shelling during fighting Wednesday that caused extensive civilian casualties at Khuzaa, east of Khan Yunis. On Thursday, Israeli shelling killed six members of a single family in Khan Yunis, and five family members died in another strike in the Jabalya refugee camp, residents reported.

Israeli troops and tanks, meanwhile, edged deeper into the Gaza Strip, battling gunmen from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant factions.

A photo circulated on social media showed Israeli forces in Gaza guarding rows of Palestinian prisoners sitting on the ground, stripped to their underwear.

Almoz, the army spokesman, said that in operations to find and blow up tunnels dug by Hamas inside the Gaza Strip and toward Israel, “many terrorists were killed and some are surrendering.” The army said it had discovered 31 tunnel networks and killed more than 200 militants.

Thirty-two Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting, along with three civilians killed in Israel by rocket strikes.

The deaths reported in the West Bank came at the Qalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. But there were fears of more violence on Friday, when Hamas called for marches after noon prayers in Ramallah and Hebron.

According to accounts by the army and Palestinians, thousands marched from the outskirts of Ramallah to the checkpoint, where they confronted Israeli soldiers and border police, burning tires and hurling rocks, Molotov cocktails and fireworks. The troops responded with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. The army said live fire was used to repel the crowd because standard riot dispersal means were ineffective against the throng of protesters.

McClatchy special correspondents Daniella Cheslow in Tel Aviv and John Zarocostas in Geneva contributed to this report.

UPDATE:An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect figure for the number of Palestinians believed killed in a protest on the West Bank.