Rafah: After international condemnation over its third deadly missile strike on a UN school in Gaza that killed 10 people and wounded 35, Israel has announced a seven-hour “humanitarian window” in Gaza.
There is deep distrust from both sides that the planned lull will stop the fighting; several ceasefires have collapsed already in this latest conflict and many Palestinians have been caught in the sudden resumption of military activity.
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Gaza school strike leaves 10 dead
WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES: Shrapnel from an Israeli attack sprayed through the windows of classrooms in a UN school where children had been sleeping and taking shelter from the conflict. Ruth Pollard reports.
The attack, which hit directly outside the school in Rafah in Gaza’s south in which at least 3000 Palestinians were sheltering, blew shrapnel inside the school grounds, striking people in the playground and spraying through classroom windows.
It drew harsh criticism from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who described it as a "moral outrage and a criminal act".
The US also issued a rare condemnation of Israel through State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who said the US was “appalled” by the “disgraceful shelling outside an UN [Relief and Works Agency] school".
Blood stained the pavement inside the school grounds and immediately outside the gate, where young Palestinians had been lining up to buy lollies and water from a cart on the footpath.
Fairfax Media arrived not long after the attack, as the school’s residents were trying to wash the blood from the concrete and others waited anxiously for news of whom among the injured had survived.
A witness to the attack said it appeared to have been aimed at a motorbike directly in front of the Rafah Preparatory Boy’s School in the city centre.
It was the third mass casualty attack at a UN school that was sheltering Palestinians forced to leave their homes by the fighting and one of at least seven attacks on UN facilities since the conflict began on July 8, the UN said.
Mr Ban called for those responsible for the "gross violation of international humanitarian law" to be held accountable, as the civilian toll of Israel’s military operation in Gaza continued to mount.
Since the humanitarian ceasefire collapsed just hours after it began on Friday morning, Israel had waged a campaign of heavy shelling and airstrikes on the southern Gaza cities of Rafah and Khan Younis, Mr Ban said.
Describing the “appalling escalation and loss of hundreds of Palestinian civilian lives” since the ceasefire was breached on August 1, he said the resurgence in fighting had only “exacerbated the man-made humanitarian and health crisis wreaking havoc in Gaza”.
Israel said Hamas used civilian areas to fire rockets and store ammunition and said it was the militant group that was responsible for the heavy civilian toll.
In a statement released on Monday it said its humanitarian window would not apply to the areas in which Israel Defense Forces soldiers were operating and that "the IDF will respond to any attempt to exploit this window to harm Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers".
"It is simply intolerable that another school has come under fire while designated to provide shelter for civilians fleeing the hostilities," said Robert Serry, the UN's Middle East special co-ordinator.
Israel was told of the co-ordinates of the school 33 times, the last time just one hour before the deadly strike, the UN said.
Victims were taken to the local Kuwait Hospital, which was overwhelmed by the dead and injured from the school attack, as well as the 36 hours of heavy shelling and bombardment that began with Israel’s assertion that militants had breached the ceasefire by capturing an Israeli soldier after the official lull had begun on Friday.
Both Hamas and its military wing al-Qassam Brigades denied a soldier had been captured and, late on Saturday night, the IDF announced Lieutenant Hadar Goldin had not been captured but instead had been “killed in battle in the Gaza Strip” on Friday.
His death brought the Israeli toll to 66 soldiers – all killed since the IDF’s ground invasion of Gaza began on July 17 – and three civilians.
Hamas said it would not stop fighting until Israel and Egypt lifted a blockade on Gaza’s borders imposed after the group took power in 2007.
Its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of “misleading the world” by saying Lieutenant Goldin had been kidnapped. “They used this falsehood to break the ceasefire and commit a massacre in Rafah,” he said.
The UN estimated there were 269,793 displaced people in 90 UNRWA schools across Gaza.
Last Wednesday, at least 15 Palestinians who sought refuge in a UN school in Jabalia in Gaza’s north were killed when heavy artillery fire hit two classrooms, drawing condemnation from both the UN and rare criticism from the Obama administration. The IDF said militants had fired at its soldiers from near the school and it shot back in response.
And on July 24, at least 15 died when shells hit a UN-run school in Beit Hanoun, although Israel denied it was responsible for those deaths. It admitted one of its shells inadvertently landed in the school but said its own video evidence showed the courtyard was empty at the time of impact. The UN disputed this, saying its courtyard was full of people at the time.
Israeli troops appeared to have withdrawn from most of Gaza, although the IDF described them as being “redeployed” to other parts of the border. Meanwhile, the IDF’s shelling and aerial bombardment of Rafah continued on Sunday, and in just 24 hours at least 120 people were dead, local officials said.
More than 1810 Palestinians had been killed and nearly 10,000 injured in Israel’s 27-day long military campaign, the Gaza Health Ministry said. About 80 per cent of them were civilians.