GAZA CITY - At least 10 people died in a fresh strike on a UN school in Gaza Sunday shortly after Israel confirmed it had begun withdrawing some troops from the war-torn enclave.
The strike on the school sheltering displaced Palestinians in the southern city of Rafah came as Israel pounded the region following the suspected capture of a soldier by militants, who was later declared dead.
It was the third time in 10 days that a UN school had been hit and came four days after Israeli tank shells slammed into a school in the northern town of Jabaliya, killing 16 in an attack furiously denounced by UN chief Ban Ki-moon as “reprehensible”.
An AFP correspondent said there were scenes of chaos at the site, with rescuers trying to evacuate the wounded any way they could, while adults were seen sprinting frantically away through pools of blood, young children clutched in their arms.
Chris Gunness, spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), said the school had been housing thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) who had been forced to flee their homes by the ongoing violence in Gaza. “Shelling incident in vicinity of UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering almost 3,000 IDPs. Initial reports say multiple deaths and injury,” he wrote on his Twitter feed.
Images of the carnage in Gaza, where medics say 1,775 Palestinians have been killed and another 9,320 wounded in the past 27 days, have shocked the public worldwide with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond demanding an unconditional ceasefire to resolve the “intolerable” situation for civilians trapped in Gaza”.
“We have to get the killing to stop,” Hammond told the Sunday Telegraph, saying many people were “deeply disturbed” by the civilian loss of life.
Intensive international attempts to broker a diplomatic end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas have so far proved fruitless but the efforts are continuing.
A Palestinian delegation was to hold truce talks Sunday in Cairo with senior US and Egyptian officials, although Israel has said it sees no point in sending its negotiators to the meeting, citing what it says are Hamas breaches of previous agreed truces. Islamic Jihad was also expected to join along with US Middle East envoy Frank Lowenstein. Several Israeli newspapers reported that cabinet ministers have taken a decision not to seek a further negotiated ceasefire agreement with Hamas and were considering ending the military operation unilaterally.
Israel’s army confirmed on Sunday it had begun withdrawing some troops from Gaza. “We are removing some (forces),” Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told AFP, saying troops were “extremely close” to completing a mission to destroy a network of attack tunnels.
“We are redeploying within the Gaza Strip, taking out other positions, and relieving other forces from within, so it won’t be the same type of ground operation,” he said.
“But indeed we will continue to operate ... (and) have a rapid reaction force on the ground that can engage Hamas if required. “It’s changing gear but it’s still ongoing.”
Israel’s assault on Rafah began early on Friday in the opening hours of a 72-hour humanitarian truce, which was quickly shattered when militants ambushed a group of soldiers, killing two of them.
A third was reported missing, believed snatched in a development which drew sharp condemnation from top US and UN officials. But early on Sunday, the Israeli army formally announced the death of the soldier, 23-year-old Hadar Goldin, saying he had been “killed in battle in the Gaza Strip on Friday”. Army radio said no body had been recovered, rendering the decision to announce his death “very delicate.” There was no word on the whereabouts of his remains.
His death raised to 64 the total number of soldiers killed since the start of the operation on July 8, its heaviest toll since the Lebanon war of 2006.
Meanwhile, Israel on Sunday opted to unilaterally redeploy its troops in Gaza without the need for dialogue with Hamas. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also appeared to rule out talks on long-term arrangements or even on a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, saying: “Hamas can carry on waiting.”
Israel could not “trust Hamas, which has broken all the proposed ceasefires, including two which Hamas itself announced,” said the minister, seen as a relative moderate in Israel’s security cabinet.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Saturday that he would act solely according to Israel’s security needs. “I don’t plan on saying when we’ll finish (the operation), we have no obligations apart from our security interests,” he said. “We will deploy in the places convenient to us.”
The security cabinet opted to leave Israel’s chair empty at talks planned for Sunday in Cairo, where a Palestinian delegation arrived on Saturday night.
The Israel HaYom freesheet, seen as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, said: “The window of opportunity for a ceasefire with Hamas is now shut.”
Netanyahu says that in the longer term, Israel will only allow destroyed neighbourhoods of Gaza to be rebuilt if there is an international commitment to a “demilitarisation” of the enclave, meaning the disarmament of Hamas.
Military radio’s political commentator said Israel will block all cement and steel imports unless it receives assurance they will not be used to build tunnels for militants to launch cross-border raids.
Senior figures quoted by media suggest Israel is hoping to reach agreement with Egypt and the international community on a possible easing of its eight-year blockade on Gaza without having to talk to Hamas.
Netanyahu has made his position clear, stating on Saturday: “I of course prefer a diplomatic solution, but if there’s no choice, we’ll of course use all the means at our disposal.”
US CONDEMNS ‘DISGRACEFUL’ SHELLING OF UN SCHOOL
Special Correspondent adds from New York: The United States Sunday sharply condemned Israel’s “disgraceful” shelling of a United Nations school sheltering civilians in Gaza, saying that the United States is “appalled” by the attack which left 10 people dead.
“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which ten more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a strongly worded statement. “We once again stress that Israel do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”
Psaki continues: “UN facilities, especially those sheltering civilians, must be protected, and must not be used as bases from which to launch attacks. The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”
“The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israel Defense Forces,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in the statement. “We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”