Israeli tank shells have hit a compound housing a UN school in the northern Gaza Strip, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens who were seeking shelter from fierce clashes on the streets outside.
Pools of blood stained the school courtyard in the northern town of Beit Hanoun, amid scattered books and belongings. There was a large scorch mark in the courtyard marking the place where one of the tank shells hit. Dozens of people, including children were wheeled into a nearby hospital as sirens wailed.
The strike occurred during a day of heavy fighting throughout the coastal territory as Israel pressed ahead with its operation to halt rocket fire from Gaza and destroy a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said the dead and injured in the school compound were among hundreds of people seeking shelter from heavy fighting in the area.
The Israeli military said it was reviewing the incident, saying that rockets launched by Hamas had landed in the Beit Hanoun area during fighting with its forces, and that those rockets may be responsible for the deaths.
Israel insists it does its utmost to prevent civilian casualties but says Hamas puts Palestinians in danger by hiding arms and fighters in civilian areas. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum condemned the violence, saying Israel was targeting displaced people and "committing massacres."
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness called on all sides "to respect the sanctity of civilian life, but also the inviolability of U.N. property."
It was the fourth time a UN facility has been hit in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since the Israeli operation began on July 8. UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, has said it has found militant rockets inside two vacant schools.
Six members of the same family and an 18-month-old infant boy were killed when an Israeli airstrike hit the Jebaliya refugee camp in the early morning hours, according to Gaza police and health officials. Twenty others were injured in the strike, they said, and rescuers were digging through the rubble of flattened homes, looking for survivors.
An airstrike on a home in the southern Gaza town of Abassan killed five members of another family, said Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra. Abassan is near Khan Younis, in an area that saw intense fighting on Wednesday.
The 16-day conflict has claimed the lives of more than 751 Palestinians, most of them civilians, Palestinian health officials say. Israel has lost 32 soldiers, all since July 17, when it widened its air campaign into a full-scale ground operation it says is aimed at halting rocket fire from Gaza and destroying a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels. Two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel have also been killed.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Thursday urged Hamas to agree on an immediate humanitarian cease-fire and said Israel and Palestinian Authority could then come together to hold talks.
"Hamas must agree to a humanitarian cease-fire without preconditions for the sake of the people in Gaza," he said during a news conference after meetings with Egyptian officials in Cairo. "We are greatly concerned by ongoing heavy humanitarian crisis and the loss of lives."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, made no reference to the cease-fire efforts in underscoring his determination to neutralize the rocket and tunnel threats.
More than 2,000 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza since July 8, and the Israeli military says it has uncovered more than 30 tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel, some of which have been used by Hamas to carry out attacks.
"We started this operation to return peace and quiet to Israel... And we shall return it," Netanyahu said after meeting with Hammond earlier Thursday in Israel.
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