Israeli Shells Kill 40 at Gaza U.N. School
Published: January 6, 2009
GAZA — Israeli mortar shells killed as many as 40 Palestinians, among them women and children, outside a United Nations school in Gaza on Tuesday where they were taking refuge in the 11th day of the conflict. The Israeli military contended that Hamas fighters had fired mortars from the school compound, and United Nations officials called for an independent inquiry into the episode.
The rising civilian death toll in crowded Gaza heightened international urgency to end the combat. American and European diplomats said it was highly likely that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel would travel to Egypt on Wednesday to discuss a cease-fire. Israel has said it will not end the operation until it has crushed Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into its civilian areas.
Meanwhile, Hamas continued to fire rockets, despite the large numbers of Israeli troops on the fourth day of the ground operation in Gaza. One rocket reached farther than ever into Israeli territory, only 20 miles from Tel Aviv, and wounded an infant.
With another day of gory news reports inflaming the Arab world, Israel contended that the deaths at the school, at the Jabaliya refugee camp north of Gaza City, demonstrated Hamas’s callousness toward the lives of Palestinian civilians.
The Israeli Defense Forces said that their troops had fired several mortar shells near the school in response to mortar fire from the school compound.
“They shot back to save their own lives,” said Ilan Tal, an Israeli military spokesman and a brigadier general in the reserves. Among the dead, the military said in a statement, were “Hamas terrorist operatives and a mortar battery cell.”
The military identified two Hamas operatives, Imad Abu Asker and Hassan Abu Asker, as having been killed.
A young witness from Jabaliya, Ibrahim Amen, 16, said that he had seen one of the militants, whom he identified as Abu Khaled Abu Asker, in the area of the school right before the attack.
Ibrahim said he saw the militant after he answered calls for volunteers to pile sand around the camp “to help protect the resistance fighters.” Ibrahim went to pile sand near the school with his brother, Iyad, 20, who was then injured by the Israeli mortar fire.
United Nations officials were unable to immediately determine the accuracy of the Israeli military’s statements.
Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which offers assistance to registered Palestinian refugees and runs the school, said his organization was calling for an independent inquiry.
“Anyone on either side of the confrontation lines found to have violated international humanitarian law must be brought to justice,” Mr. Gunness said.
The night before, the United Nations said, three Palestinian men were killed in an Israeli attack on another United Nations school for refugees in Gaza.
“These attacks by Israeli military forces which endanger U.N. facilities acting as places of refuge are totally unacceptable and must not be repeated,” the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said in a statement. “Equally unacceptable are any actions by militants which endanger the Palestinian civilian population.”
Speaking to reporters at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday, hours before the strike at the Jabaliya school compound, John Ging, the chief of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, called the Gaza violence a “horrific tragedy” and a result of “political failure.”
“There is no safe haven,” he said.
United Nations officials initially put the Jabaliya death toll at 30 and said 55 were wounded, with several in critical condition. Palestinian hospital officials said 40 people had been killed, among them 10 children and 5 women.
The death toll in Gaza reached around 640 on Tuesday, according to Palestinian health officials. The United Nations has estimated that about one-fourth of those killed were civilians, though there have been no reliable and current figures in recent days.
International efforts to halt the violence appeared to be moving into a higher gear.
At the United Nations, the Security Council held a high-level meeting attended by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and many foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Gaza. Mr. Abbas and other senior Arab officials supported a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, which was introduced by Libya.
But some members of the Security Council, including the United States, withheld support for any resolution because of efforts in the Middle East to achieve a cease-fire.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt said at a news conference in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France that the Israelis and the Palestinians should accept a cease-fire to give Cairo time to continue its efforts toward a durable long-term solution.
Israeli and American officials insist that a cease-fire would have to await guarantees that no more weapons would be smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt; a possible mechanism for that is the stationing of international observers along the border with Egypt.
“We must find a way to prevent arms and explosives from entering Gaza,” the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, told the Security Council. “When this ends, there must be new arrangements in place, not a return to the status quo ante.”
President-elect Barack Obama broke his silence about the Gaza fighting on Tuesday, telling reporters, “The loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern for me.”
Israeli losses have also risen since the ground invasion began on Saturday. The military said that three of its soldiers were killed late Monday night when an Israeli tank shell was mistakenly fired at a building they occupied.
A fourth soldier was also killed Monday night, very possibly also by an Israeli tank shell, the military said. Two soldiers, including one on Tuesday, have been killed in clashes with Hamas.
Before the Israeli ground campaign began, three Israeli civilians and a soldier were killed by rockets fired from Gaza at southern Israel.
Hamas’s deepest rocket fire into Israel was a Katyusha-type rocket that on Tuesday slammed into the Israeli town of Gadera, more than 25 miles north of the Gaza border. The rocket landed between houses, and a baby was injured slightly, the Israeli authorities said.
The location was significant for Israelis, since Gadera is considered part of central Israel. The thousands of rockets fired out of Gaza in recent years have all landed in the south.
Israeli ground forces continued to fight Hamas operatives in northern Gaza.
The Israeli forces were surrounding Gaza City and, residents said, were east of Khan Yunis in the south.
In Al-Nasir, a district of Gaza City, families fleeing the fighting in the north poured into a United Nations boys’ school. Thirty members of the extended al-Sultan family from Beit Lahiya, including more than 20 children, huddled in one small classroom.
Ayisha al-Sultan, 36, who is married to a heart surgeon, said she had left behind a comfortable villa where each of her five children has a separate room.
“Now look at us,” she said. “At night we covered the floor tiles with paper for the kids to sleep on. We took off our jackets and covered them.”
International relief agencies warned that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was becoming increasingly dire. Three-quarters of the 1.5 million residents are currently without power, and hundreds of thousands are without running water, international agencies have said.
Venezuela Expels Envoy
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador on Wednesday to protest Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, bringing relations between Venezuela and Israel to their lowest point since 2006, when both nations withdrew their envoys in a dispute over Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon against Hezbollah.
Mr. Chávez stopped short of breaking off diplomatic ties but described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide.”
Source : NYTimes.