herald

Tuesday 24 October 2017

UN school courtyard stained with blood as Israeli tank shells kill 15 in horror attack

A Palestinian child, wounded in an Israeli strike on a compound housing a U.N. school in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, cries at the emergency room of the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya. AP
A Palestinian child, wounded in an Israeli strike on a compound housing a U.N. school in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, cries at the emergency room of the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya. AP

Israeli tank shells hit a compound housing a UN school in the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing at least 15 people and some 200 injured, many of whom were seeking shelter from fierce clashes on the streets outside, Palestinian officials said.

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 injured, including children, were wheeled into a nearby hospital as sirens wailed.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his horror at the attack on the school.

"Many have been killed - including women and children, as well as UN staff," he said in a statement. "I strongly condemn this act."

Pools of blood lay on the ground and on students' desks in the courtyard near the apparent impact mark of the shell.

Scores of crying families who had been living in the school ran with their children to a hospital where the victims were being treated a few hundred metres away.

Laila Al-Shinbari, a woman who was at the school when it was shelled, said that families had gathered in the courtyard expecting to be evacuated in a Red Cross convoy.

"All of us sat in one place when suddenly four shells landed on our heads. Bodies were on the ground, (there was) blood and screams. My son is dead and all my relatives are wounded including my other kids," she wept.

The strike occurred during a day of heavy fighting throughout the coastal territory.

Israel claims the war is meant to halt rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza and destroy a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels.

International efforts to bring about a truce appeared ineffective, with the violence continuing and Hamas reiterating its demand for a ceasefire and that a crippling Egyptian and Israeli blockade on Gaza be lifted.

Shelter

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.

It was the fourth time a UN facility had been hit in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since the Israeli operation began July 8.

UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, said it has found militant rockets inside two vacant schools but the target of yesterday's strike was not immediately clear.

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 UN property".

The deaths raised the overall Palestinian death toll in the conflict that began on July 8 to at least 751, al-Kidra said.

Israel has lost 32 soldiers, all since July 17, when it widened its air campaign into a full-scale ground operation. Two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel have also been killed.

With the number of casualties growing on both sides, the international community has stepped up diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire. But Hamas is insisting on the lifting of the seven-year-old blockade that was imposed when the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza from the Western-backed government of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Blockade

Israel imposed the blockade in 2006 after Hamas and other militants abducted an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid. It tightened the siege in 2007 after Hamas seized power from forces loyal to Mr Abbas, but had eased some of the restrictions in recent years.

Egypt tightened its own restrictions last year after the overthrow of a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo and has destroyed many of the cross-border smuggling tunnels that sustained Gaza's economy, and which were also used by Hamas to bring in arms.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, made no reference to the ceasefire efforts in underscoring his determination to neutralise 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.

In other violence, six members of the same family and an 18-month-old infant boy were killed when an Israeli airstrike hit the Jebaliya refugee camp, according to health officials.

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