An injured Palestinian girl at a hospital in Gaza after the shelling. (Reuters)
Jabaliya (Gaza Strip), July 30: The strikes came in rapid succession. At around 5am (local time) today at a UN school at the Jabaliya refugee camp, where 3,300 Palestinians had taken refuge from the fierce fighting in their Gaza neighbourhoods, what appeared to be four Israeli artillery shells hit the compound.
One hit the street in front of the entrance, according to several witnesses. Two others hit classrooms where people were sleeping.
Palestinian health officials said at least 20 people were killed by what witnesses and UN officials said was the latest in a series of strikes on UN facilities that are supposed to be safe zones in the 23-day-old battle against Hamas and other militants.
“My house was burned and death followed us here,” said Ahmed Mousa, 50, who was in the school courtyard when the shells hit. “Where am I supposed to go?”
Lt Col Peter Lerner of the Israeli military said no UN facility had been targeted during the operation. A military spokeswoman said Palestinian militants had “opened fire at Israeli soldiers from the vicinity” of the school in the Jabaliya refugee camp this morning, and that the Israeli troops “responded by firing toward the origins of the fire”.
The military had earlier denied responsibility for 16 deaths last week at a different UN school serving as a shelter, in Beit Hanoun, saying that the only piece of Israeli ordnance to hit the school compound, an errant mortar, struck when the courtyard was empty.
Robert Turner, the Gaza-based director of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which is sheltering more than 200,000 Palestinians in 85 of its schools, said today that there had been at least five and perhaps seven strikes on the facilities since Israel’s ground operation in Gaza began on July 17. He was still checking reports that a school in the Shati refugee camp and one in the Mamouniya neighbourhood of Gaza City had been hit overnight.
“What we’ve seen in our shelters is indicative of what we’ve seen more generally,” Turner said. “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.”
The Israeli military announced a four-hour humanitarian window this afternoon but said it would not apply to the areas where soldiers were operating, and that residents should not return to areas they had been asked to evacuate. That only added to the confusion on the ground, after four days of on-again, off-again lulls and mixed messages from various leaders about truce agreements.
The “window” was to be from 3pm to 7pm, and the military promised in its announcement that troops would “respond to any attempt to exploit this window to harm Israeli civilians” and soldiers.
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.
The Israeli announcement came after it appeared to have intensified its assault overnight. The Palestinian toll since the operation began on July 8 topped 1,250 by midday, according to the Gaza-based health ministry; on the Israeli side, 53 soldiers and 3 civilians have been killed.
Turner said his agency had provided the GPS coordinates of the school to the Israel Defence Forces 17 times, starting July 16 and most recently yesterday at 8.48pm, to ensure it would be spared. Ziad Yousef, who also works for the agency, said the doors were locked at 11pm yesterday so no one could come or go.
“People who saw that happen are now convinced there are no safe places left,” Yousef said.
At least four strikes hit in close succession in a straight line across the school compound, indicating artillery fire, according to people who saw the attack; one struck a house behind the school. The drop ceiling of one classroom had collapsed, and the tin roof was peppered with shrapnel holes. The ground was covered with rubble, clothing and pools of blood. Sunlight shone through a hole in the roof of another classroom, also hit by a shell.