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Palestinian territories

Israel shells Gaza school used as UN refuge

UN chief 'appalled' by incident: 15 dead, 200 injured

Steve Weizman for AFP, Gaza City

Steve Weizman for AFP, Gaza City

Updated: July 24, 2014 05:39 PM GMT
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Israel shells Gaza school used as UN refuge

Palestinians inspect damage following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

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There were signs of renewed efforts for a Gaza ceasefire on Friday as the death toll continued to climb after Israel shelled a UN shelter killing 15 Palestinians.

Israel's secretive security cabinet was expected to meet later in the day to discuss truce proposals passed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by US Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Israeli media said.

Those reports came after an Israeli shell slammed into a UN facility sheltering displaced Gazans on Thursday, prompting UN chief Ban Ki-moon to say he was "appalled" at the incident which "underscores the imperative for the killing to stop – and to stop now".

Fresh Israeli fire early Friday pushed the overall Palestinian death toll in Gaza to over 800, Palestinian emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

He said that an air strike on a house in the southern Gaza town of Deir-el-Balah killed a woman of 26 and another aged 23 who was pregnant, as Israel pressed on with its 18-day campaign to stamp out Gaza rocket fire.

The baby was saved, he said.

Two other people wounded earlier in shelling of the southern city of Khan Yunis, died of their injuries, Qudra said, bringing the total number of Gazans killed in the Israeli campaign to 804.

Thursday's strike hit a UN school sheltering some of the 100,000 Palestinians driven from their homes in search of a safe haven after weeks of deadly fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.

The shell crashed down in the middle of the courtyard where people were camped, leaving the ground covered in bloodstains.

Gaza's emergency services said at least 15 people were killed and more than 200 wounded.

UN chief Ban said: "Many have been killed, including women and children, as well as UN staff."

Washington said it was "deeply saddened and concerned about the tragic incident", without explicitly blaming its ally Israel for the shelling.

Kerry, in Cairo trying to negotiate a ceasefire, reached out to Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar on Thursday as he sought to further regional efforts to broker an end to the bloodshed.

His efforts are focused on a week-long humanitarian ceasefire, during which intensive negotiations will tackle the blockade of Gaza and other disputes, Western and Palestinian officials, said.

Hamas earlier rejected an Egyptian proposal.

Its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal told the BBC in an interview Thursday that a truce must include a guaranteed end to Israel's eight-year blockade on the Gaza Strip.

"We want a ceasefire as soon as possible, that's parallel with the lifting of the siege of Gaza," he said.

Most of Thursday's 98 Gaza victims were killed in and around Khuzaa, a flashpoint area east of Khan Yunis, which has been the site of intensive fighting since Tuesday.

But the biggest single strike was at the school in the north, where the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said it had been trying to coordinate with the army over the evacuation of civilians, without success.

An AFP correspondent saw nine bodies, including that of a year-old baby and his mother at a nearby mortuary.

"We've spent much of the day trying to negotiate or to coordinate a window so that civilians, including our staff, could leave," spokesman Chris Gunness said.

"That was never granted... and the consequences of that appear to be tragic."

Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner suggested militants firing rockets near the school could have caused the deaths.

He also took issue with the claim that Israel had rejected a humanitarian truce around the school, saying it had implemented a four-hour window for evacuations.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has said more than 80 percent of the casualties so far have been civilians, and a quarter of them children, triggering growing international alarm over the civilian body count.

"As this campaign goes on and the civilian casualties in Gaza mount, Western public opinion is becoming more and more concerned and less and less sympathetic to Israel," warned British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos expressed deep concern about the mounting civilian casualties, saying it was "almost impossible" for Palestinians to shelter from Israeli air strikes in the densely populated territory.

Meanwhile, US airlines on Thursday lifted a two-day suspension of flights to Israel, but not all international airlines followed suit, with Germany's Lufthansa and Air France keeping their Tel Aviv flights grounded.

The ban was put in place on Tuesday after a rocket hit a house very close to the runways.

So far, 32 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have died in the fighting.

In the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians protesting the Gaza toll clashed with Israeli forces outside Jerusalem.

One demonstrator was killed and over 150 injured by Israeli fire, five critically, Palestinian medical staff said.

Far-right hawk Reuven Rivlin was sworn in as Israel's 10th president on Thursday, replacing elder statesman Shimon Peres.

With the nation in mourning, the inauguration ceremony was scaled down, but Rivlin said it sent a "very clear message to our enemies: you have not overcome us and you will not do so". AFP

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