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.
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."
Both Hamas and Israel have rejected calls for a truce.
Speaking in Washington, President-elect Barack Obama commented for the first time on the Israeli offensive, saying that "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern to me, and after January 20th I'll have plenty to say about the issue."
The comments contrasted with statements from the Bush administration, which has focused its public remarks on condemning Hamas's role in initiating the violence. Bush has said that only after Hamas has stopped firing rockets should Israel be required to halt its military campaign.
Rockets continued to be launched from the strip Tuesday, with 35 landing in Israel, the military said. A 3-month-old child in Gedera, about 25 miles north of Gaza, was lightly wounded.
Israeli officials blamed Hamas, which has run Gaza for the past 18 months, for the deaths at the schools.
"Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Hamas has deliberately abused a U.N. installation," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Israeli military officials said soldiers operating in the area around the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza came under mortar fire and responded by targeting the source: the U.N.-run al-Fakhora School.
"When you're fired at, you have to fight back," said reserve Brig. Gen. Ilan Tal, a military spokesman.
Tal said two known Hamas gunmen were killed in the Israeli strike just outside the school, in addition to members of a mortar squad.
U.N. officials said they did not know whether fighters had been in the school, and wanted the matter investigated.
At the local hospital where dozens of the injured were treated, physician Basam Warda said a large number of the casualties were women and children who had gathered at the school because they considered it a haven from the fighting. At the time of the attack, people were standing outside the gate of the school, where hundreds of families had sought shelter.
"The wounded arrived with multiple fractures, ripped stomachs, amputated limbs," he said. "The bodies were ripped apart."
Warda said many of the wounded had to be placed on the floor and treated there because of a bed shortage. Others were sent to another hospital, in Gaza City. "Some might have died on the way," he said.
Ging called the fighting "the product of political failure" and accused Israel of depriving Palestinians of critically needed infrastructure.
In a report, the U.N. humanitarian office in Gaza said Tuesday that water and sewage systems in the strip were on the verge of collapse because of power outages and that a third of Gaza's residents are completely cut off from running water.
As the sense of crisis in Gaza deepened, Israeli forces battled on both ends of the 40-mile-long strip, and reports from within the territory suggested the military was tightening its grip. Witnesses said that Israel made gains in Khan Younis, in the south, and that there was intense fighting around Gaza City, in the north.
One Israeli soldier was killed Tuesday, bringing to six the total dead since Israel launched its ground offensive Saturday night. Of those, four were killed in "friendly fire" incidents.
Three Israeli civilians and a soldier were killed by rocket fire earlier in the campaign.
In his remarks, Obama said he was "not backing away at all from what I said during the campaign. . . . Starting at the beginning of our administration, we're going to engage effectively and consistently in trying to resolve the conflict in the Middle East."
Leading the push for a truce in Gaza is French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been visiting Middle Eastern capitals this week, urging an immediate cease-fire.
Sarkozy said the deaths at the school illustrated the need for a nonmilitary solution. "This reinforces my determination for this to end as quickly as possible," Sarkozy told reporters in the southern Lebanese town of At Tiri after learning of the school attack. "Time works against us; that's why we must find a solution."
Sarkozy was also in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday, in a bid to get President Bashar al-Assad to pressure Hamas into agreeing to a truce. Syria and Iran are two of Hamas's biggest backers.
Assad called Israel's offensive "a war crime." But he also urged a cease-fire.
Hamas, which has never recognized Israel, has vowed to fight on. Israel says it will not stop its offensive until it has international guarantees that Hamas can be prevented from continuing to fire rockets.
As Sarkozy visited Egypt late Tuesday, President Hosni Mubarak said he would propose an immediate cease-fire, followed by talks on the Israeli blockade of Gaza and on ways of keeping arms from being smuggled into Gaza via Egypt.
Egypt mediated a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel this summer. The expiration of that truce Dec. 19 precipitated the latest round of violence.
In New York, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Olmert had responded to Mubarak's initiative with an offer to open a humanitarian corridor into Gaza but did not say whether Israel would participate in talks with the Palestinians. "We are awaiting the Israeli response and we harbor hope that it will be a positive one," Kouchner said.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondents Reyham Abdel Kareem in Gaza City and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.