Jabalia, Gaza: Four donkeys lay dead at the gate of the Jabalia Elementary Girls School in Gaza, the first indication of the bloody human toll inside.
Three heavy artillery shells hit the United Nations school in the early hours of Wednesday, killing 19 and wounding at least 100. More than 3300 Palestinians were sheltering in the school after fleeing from Israel’s military operations in Gaza.
Bloodied pillows and blankets – shredded – were scattered over the school’s courtyard as shocked and traumatised families displaced from their homes and living in overcrowded conditions, waited to hear the fate of those injured.
A boy wounded in an Israeli strike on a compound housing a UN school in Jabalia waits for treatment. Photo: AFP
''We came here because we thought it was safe,'' said Amna Zantit, cradling her eight-month-old son in her arms, as the boom of shells echoed in the distance and drones and F-16s growled overhead.
''For 1½ hours there was shelling all around the school … it was the most terrifying night, death came very close to us,'' she said. ''When they struck the classrooms we lost electricity – we couldn’t see anything and it was hard to breathe from the dust and the fear.''
One shell blew out the front wall of a classroom, another tore a large hole in the ceiling of a second-floor classroom across the courtyard, a third hit a small building near the school gates. The families sleeping inside did not stand a chance.
Gurneys piled up outside the morgue at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahia in Gaza. Photo: AFP
''I was sleeping when the first shell landed,'' said 15-year-old Rezeq al-Adham as he lay in Kamal Adwan Hospital awaiting surgery to save his badly injured right leg. ''I escaped into the school yard and that is when the second shell landed.''
His father saw him fall to the ground bleeding as chaos broke out all around them. ''These are people who were instructed to leave their homes by the Israeli army,'' the United Nations Relief and Works Commissioner Pierre Krahenbuhl said.
He condemned the attack as ''a serious violation of international law by Israeli forces''.
A girl injured in an Israeli strike in Shujaiyah, Gaza, outside a hospital. Photo: AP
It was the second mass casualty attack, and the sixth strike, on a UN school since Israel’s military offensive in Gaza began on July 8.
''The precise location of the Jabalia Elementary Girls School and the fact that it was housing thousands of internally displaced people was communicated to the Israeli army 17 times to ensure its protection; the last … just hours before the fatal shelling,'' Mr Krahenbuhl said.
UN shelters are overflowing, he said, and UN staff – ''the very people leading the humanitarian response'' – are being killed.
Exhausted Palestinian medics take a break after carrying wounded people injured from the Israeli strike in the Shujaiyah neighbourhood, into the emergency room at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. Photo: AP
As Israel’s Operation Protective Edge entered its 24th day, the IDF called up 16,000 additional reserve troops, a senior officer told Haaretz, raising the number of reservists called up so far to 86,000.
The death toll in the Israeli operation has topped 1400, according to Palestinian health officials, while more than 7500 Palestinians have been wounded.
The number of internally displaced people throughout the strip taking shelter in UNRWA schools now exceeds 240,000, while a further 200,000 are estimated to be sheltering with family.
Heavy smoke billows after an Israeli military strike in Gaza City. Photo: AFP
Bread queues form early each day and food and water shortages are worsening, while Gaza's sole power plant remains shut after being struck by shelling on Tuesday, reducing the already limited power supply to zero in some parts.
Gaza City is receiving electricity for about two hours a day, the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says, and some central locations have no supply at all: "This is having an immediate effect on the public health situation, reducing water and sanitation services which depend on main electric lines, and creating greater dependence of hospitals on generator power."
The toll of Palestinians killed has reached 1361.
''Tens of thousands may soon be stranded in the streets of Gaza, without food, water and shelter if attacks on these areas continue,'' Mr Krahenbuhl said.
He called on the international community to take political action to put an end to the carnage, which continued on Wednesday when three air strikes on the outskirts of the town of Shujaiya killed 15 and injured 150. As thick black smoke billowed from the initial air strike witnesses said emergency services and civilians rushed to help the dead and injured, only to be hit with a further two air strikes minutes later.
The attack was carried out during a four-hour ''humanitarian lull'' announced by the Israeli Defence Force – it had warned ''the humanitarian window will not apply to the areas in which IDF soldiers are currently operating'', including Shujaiya.
Amid scenes of panic and carnage, with bodies torn apart and the severely injured being carried by hand to waiting ambulances, the people of Gaza prepared for another terrifying night of bombardment from Israeli navy boats and F-16s.
''This atrocity is barbarity personified,'' director-general of the Ministry of Health in Gaza, Dr Medhat Abbas, said, amid scenes of chaos at hospitals in the centre and north of the coastal strip.
More than 108 Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes and shelling on Wednesday alone. Human rights groups say 80 per cent of the casualties are civilian and, of them, 31 per cent are children.
The Obama administration, without naming Israel, condemned the shelling of the UNRWA school and urged a prompt investigation into the incident.
As its soldiers carried out the deadly attack on Shujaiya, Israel’s security cabinet held a five-hour meeting to discuss its operations in Gaza. Local media reported that the cabinet had ordered the IDF to continue its offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
Fifty-six soldiers have been killed since Israel began its ground invasion of the coastal strip on July 17, while three civilians have also died.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the IDF said militants in Gaza had launched more than 2600 rockets towards Israel over the past three weeks, while Israeli forces have hit 4100 targets in Gaza, about one-third connected to rocket launching.
During the humanitarian window, 26 rockets had been fired at Israel. Two of them were intercepted by Israel’s missile defence system above the southern cities of Ashkelon and Netivot, the IDF reported.
For the third time in two months, the UNRWA said on Tuesday that it had found that weapons were being stored in schools that were closed for the summer.
''We condemn the group or groups who endangered civilians by placing these munitions in our school,'' spokesman Christopher Gunness said. ''This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises.''
Mr Krahenbuhl said the discovery of the weapons by UN staff could in no way justify Israel’s attacks on schools.
''There simply cannot be, by any stretch of the imagination, a suggestion that because weapons were found in three schools – by us – that allows … self-exoneration in relation to an attack like this,'' he told the al-Jazeera network.