GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israeli strikes hit a crowded shopping area in Gaza City on Wednesday, hours after tank shells tore through the walls of a United Nations school crowded with war refugees in the deadliest of a series of attacks that pushed the Palestinian death toll above 1,360.
The bloodshed came on the heels of an escalation by both sides fighting in the coastal territory, further dimming prospects for a sustainable cease-fire despite international diplomatic efforts to end the more than three weeks of fighting.
The attack on the U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp was the second deadly strike on a U.N. compound in a week. Tank shells slammed into the compound before dawn, said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which is sheltering more than 200,000 people displaced by the fighting at dozens of U.N. schools across Gaza.
Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said that at least 17 people were killed and about 90 wounded in the school strike. Four of the dead were killed just outside the school compound, two in a home nearby and two in the street after returning from pre-dawn prayers, their relatives said.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the Israeli military said no U.N. facility had been targeted during the operation. A military spokesman said Palestinian militants had "opened fire at Israeli soldiers from the vicinity" of the school and that the Israeli troops "responded by firing toward the origins of the fire."
Assad Sabah said he and his five children were huddling under desks in one of the classrooms because of the constant sound of tank fire throughout the night.
"We were scared to death," he said. "After 4:30 a.m., tanks started firing more. Three explosions shook the school."
"One classroom collapsed over the head of the people who were inside," he said.
In one classroom, the front wall was blown out, leaving debris and bloodied clothing. Another strike tore a large round hole in the ceiling of a second-floor classroom.
Hundreds of people crowded the school courtyard after the strike, some dazed, others wailing.
"My house was burned, and death followed us here," said Ahmed Mousa, 50. "Where am I supposed to go?"
Jebaliya, a refugee camp just north of Gaza City, has been under intense artillery shelling since Tuesday afternoon, with 50 people killed in a 24-hour period, health officials said.
Already one of Gaza's most densely crowded areas, its streets had been packed in recent days with people who fled their homes closer to the border when Israeli troops invaded. More than 3,000 had crowded into the Abu Hussein girls elementary school, which took the tank fire.
In all, 1,361 Palestinians have been killed -- 116 on Wednesday -- and more than 7,600 wounded since the July 8 start of fighting, said al-Kidra, the Gaza Health Ministry official.
The Israeli military said three of its soldiers were killed when a booby-trapped house collapsed after they identified an entrance to a tunnel inside, raising to 56 the number killed since a ground war began earlier this month. Three civilians also have been killed on the Israeli side.
The U.N. said the strike on the school was the sixth since the conflict began and the second to cause deaths. At least 15 civilians were killed last Thursday when the courtyard of a school in Gaza City was hit, U.N. officials said.
Israel has acknowledged that troops fired a mortar shell that hit the courtyard, but said aerial footage shows the yard was empty at the time and that the shell could not have killed anyone.
"What we've seen in our shelters is indicative of what we've seen more generally," said Robert Turner, the Gaza-based director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. "When they started naval bombardment, artillery and tank fire, that's just not as accurate as airstrikes. They can't see what they're shooting at, so we've seen more destruction, more damage, more death."
Yomtov Tamir, a retired Israeli general, said he was not familiar with Wednesday's strike on the school but said that even though tank fire is generally "very accurate," it can miss its target for a variety of reasons.
"One -- it might have gone through a target. Two -- it might be a mistake in identification, that they intended to hit something specific but that it was actually something other than what the person aiming intended," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Wednesday's strike "outrageous" and "unjustifiable."
"Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children," Ban said on his arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica. He added that "all available evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause" and noted that Israeli military authorities had received the coordinates of the school from the United Nations 17 times, including on Tuesday night.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson expressed "shock and dismay" at the attack.
Eliasson and Ban urged both sides to agree to an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire and talks to resolve outstanding issues peacefully.
"In the name of our common humanity, the fighting must stop now," Ban said.
The White House also condemned the deadly shelling. Spokesman Bernadette Meehan also said the U.S. is "extremely concerned" that thousands of Palestinians aren't safe in U.N.-designated shelters despite being told by Israel's military to leave their homes. Israel has been warning civilians by phone and leaflet to leave dangerous areas ahead of strikes on militant targets.
While Obama and other top officials consistently state their support for Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas rocket fire, the White House has been making increasingly strong statements about the Palestinian civilians dying in Israeli attacks. Officials have also directly called on Israel to do more to prevent the casualties.
The U.S. frustrations were compounded by a flurry of Israeli media reports this week that appeared aimed at discrediting President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent days trying to negotiate an unsuccessful cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
In unusually blunt language, a State Department spokesman on Wednesday repeatedly described one of the reports as "complete crap."
Shopping area hit
Hours after the school attack, several Israeli shells hit a crowded shopping area in the Shijaiyah district in Gaza City, killing at least 16 people, including local Palestinian photographer Rami Rayan, and wounding more than 200 people, Gaza health officials said.
A witness had previously described airstrikes, but a Gaza Civil Defense official said the area was hit by shelling.
Al-Kidra and witnesses said the shopping area was busy because residents, and many who had taken shelter in the area from fighting elsewhere, thought a cease-fire was in place. The Palestinian Red Crescent confirmed the death toll.
The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the strike on the shopping area, saying it was investigating the report.
Israel had earlier announced a "humanitarian window" in certain parts of the territory. But it said it would not halt fire in other areas, including in Shijaiyah, where the strike took place.
"People were in the street and in the market, mostly women and kids. Suddenly more than 10 shells landed in the area, the market, in the Turkman area, and next to the gas station," said Salim Qadoum, 26, who witnessed the strike.
Blood stained the streets near the strike. Some survivors were yelling in shock. Scores of wounded were taken to Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, where the emergency room quickly overflowed. Some were treated on the blood-smeared floor.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said at least 10 people were killed in other Israeli strikes elsewhere during Israel's unilateral four-hour pause.
An earlier strike also hit a warehouse in the Shijaiyah district, which has been frequently targeted by Israel. That caused a fire and sent a large cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky as firefighters and ambulances arrived at the scene.
Brig. Gen. Mickey Adelstein, a senior Israeli military official, said the structure was a clinic operated by the U.N., but the U.N. said it could not confirm that.
Hamas rejected the Israeli-declared lull, saying in a statement that it was "just for media consumption and has no value" because it excluded the areas near the border where hostilities continued, making it impossible to evacuate the injured from there.
Gaza militants fired 84 rockets at Israel on Wednesday, including more than 26 after the cease-fire was announced, the military said.
Israel has said its Gaza operation is meant to stop Hamas rocket and mortar fire that has reached increasingly deeper into its territory and to destroy a sophisticated network of tunnels used for attacks inside Israel. Hamas has refused efforts to forge a truce, insisting its demands -- including the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade -- must be met first.
Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, the head of the army's southern command, said Israel was "a few days" away from destroying the 32 tunnels it has located so far. More than two-thirds of those have been demolished, said Adelstein, the senior military official.
"Hamas could have built two hospitals, 20 schools, 20 clinics and 100 kindergartens with the amount of cement they used to build the tunnels," Turgeman said.
Gaza militants have fired more than 2,600 rockets toward Israel over the past three weeks, according to the Israeli army. Over the past 23 days, Israeli forces have hit 4,100 targets in Gaza, about one-third connected to rocket launching, a statement said.
On Wednesday, Bolivia's leftist president declared Israel a "terrorist state" because of its offensive in the Gaza Strip and said his government will now require Israeli citizens to obtain a visa to visit the Andean nation.
President Evo Morales already broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 2009, calling its treatment of Palestinians "a genocide." The action announced Wednesday will especially hit young Israelis, who often travel for extended periods, with South America a popular destination.
Other South American countries, including Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, have recalled their ambassadors from Israel in protest over the fighting in Gaza.
Information for this article was contributed by Karin Laub, Tia Goldenberg, Ibrahim Barzak, Ian Deitch, Yousur Alhlou, Ariel David, Julie Pace, Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor, Josh Lederman and staff members of The Associated Press and by Ben Hubbard, Jodi Rudoren and Fares Akram of The New York Times.
A Section on 07/31/2014
Print Headline: Gaza market hit; earlier 17 die at school