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Israel Hits U.N.-Run School in Gaza

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.

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By Griff Witte and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 6 -- Israeli soldiers battling Hamas gunmen in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday fired mortar shells at a U.N.-run school where Palestinians had sought refuge from the fighting, killing at least 40 people, many of them civilians, Palestinian medical officials said.

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The Israeli military said its soldiers fired in self-defense after Hamas fighters launched mortar shells from the school. The United Nations condemned the attack and called for an independent investigation.

"We are completely devastated. There is nowhere safe in Gaza," said John Ging, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip.

The incident -- one of the single most deadly during Israel's 11-day offensive -- underscored the dangers Palestinian civilians face as thousands of Israeli soldiers fight their way across Gaza against an enemy that does not wear uniforms or operate from bases, but instead mingles with the population.

In all, at least 85 Palestinians died in attacks across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, said Mowaiya Hassanien, a senior Gaza hospital official. He said the Palestinian death toll since the start of Israel's massive military campaign stood at 625, with more than 2,900 injured. The United Nations says 30 percent of those killed have been women and children.

Tuesday's attack on the school came only hours after an Israeli missile struck a residential area in al-Bureij refugee camp, injuring seven U.N. workers in a nearby medical clinic, U.N. officials said. Late Monday, an Israeli airstrike on a U.N. school in Gaza City had killed three members of a family.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the attacks "totally unacceptable."

"After earlier strikes, the Israeli government was warned that its operations were endangering U.N. compounds," he said in a statement. "I am deeply dismayed that despite these repeated efforts, today's tragedies have ensued."

Since the fighting began, the United Nations has opened 23 of its schools as emergency shelters for the 1.5 million residents of Gaza, who are unable to leave the territory. By Tuesday night, the number of displaced Palestinians flooding into the schools had reached 15,000.

Ging, the U.N. official in Gaza, said that all U.N. facilities are clearly marked with flags and that the Israeli military has been given precise Global Positioning System coordinates.

Using unusually strong language for a body known for quiet diplomacy, Ging declared Tuesday that both Israeli and Hamas leaders, as well as the international community, are to blame for the mounting civilian death toll.

"The political leaders who are responsible on both sides have to call a halt," Ging said. "The civilian population is paying a horrific price. We need this right now. Not tomorrow. The civilians in Gaza have international rights to be protected not by verbal protection, but actual protection."


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