Israel’s 23-day-old battle against Hamas is now the longest war the Jewish state has waged in Gaza. After another bloody day of conflict, the Palestinian body count exceeds 1,300 and the Israelis are facing mounting international condemnation for the deaths and injuries of civilians.
On Wednesday, the shelling of two groups of Gazans at a UN school and a market left at least 33 people dead and both sides reeling.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reacted harshly: “This morning a UN school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families suffered a reprehensible attack,” he said on a visit to Costa Rica. “It is unjustifiable, and demands accountability and justice.”
Just before dawn Wednesday, a moment after the early morning call to prayer, at least three artillery shells, believed to have been fired by Israeli tanks, slammed into classrooms of a United Nations elementary school for girls in the Jabaliya refugee camp, north of Gaza City. Some 3,000 people had taken refuge in the school after being instructed by the Israeli army to flee the fighting between advancing Israeli forces and the militant Hamas resistance movement. Most were asleep when the shells hit. At least 16 people were killed and about 100 wounded.
“Children were killed as they slept next to their parents on the floor of a classroom in a UN-designated shelter,” said an outraged Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. “Children killed in their sleep; this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”
It was the second deadly attack on a school full of refuge-seekers in less than a week.
About 12 hours later, a series of shells hit a crowded fruit and vegetable market in the battered area of Shejaia, east of Gaza City. Israel had declared a four-hour humanitarian ceasefire and people ventured out to shop believing it was safe. At least 17 people were killed and about 200 wounded.
The attack on the school was denounced by the White House in a carefully worded statement that avoided mentioning Israel.
“We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN-designated shelters in Gaza,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said. “We also condemn those responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Hamas is solely responsible for the death and destruction in Gaza. “Obviously no one likes to see the suffering and loss of life that has occurred,” Mr. Harper told reporters in Air Ronge, Sask., after a job-training announcement.
“That said, we hold the terrorist organization Hamas responsible for this. They have initiated and continue this conflict and continue to seek the destruction of the state of Israel.”
In the school shelling, Israel explained its forces were returning fire; someone had launched mortar shells against Israeli troops from near the school.
Hamas rockets and other weapons are often hidden and launched near such facilities to make them a less-inviting target.
In the case of the market, Israeli military spokesmen said that the ceasefire only applied to those areas where there was no fighting. It would not apply, the IDF had said, in areas where Israeli forces were “currently operating.”
In conflict zones worldwide, shelters for civilians and ceasefires for humanitarian purposes are regulated by international conventions to which Israel is a signatory.
On Tuesday, UNRWA said it had found a cache of rockets concealed at another Gaza school – the third such discovery since the conflict began. It condemned unnamed militant groups for putting civilians at risk.
Already, this Israeli war against Hamas has lasted longer than any other. The 2008-09 conflict ran 22 days; the 2012 battle just eight days. And the body count of more than 1,300 now has pretty well equalled the number slain in 2008-09.
Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo Wednesday for talks with Egyptian officials about possible terms for a ceasefire agreement. An initial Egyptian draft presented two weeks ago had called for both Israel and Hamas to cease firing and to meet in Cairo to discuss their differences. Israel accepted the offer, supported also by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, but Hamas rejected it.
A second draft put forward last week by Egypt with the assistance of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN Secretary-General was rejected by Israel.
Major-General Sami Turgeman, head of the Israeli army’s southern command, told reporters Wednesday that his troops were still “a few days away” from destroying all the tunnels they had uncovered running from Gaza underneath the border to Israel. He said that military offensive had now been broadened to include further targets in the central and southern Gaza Strip.
The Israeli public continues to support the military operation in Gaza. A survey published this week by Tel Aviv University showed that 95 per cent of Israeli Jews think the offensive is justified. Only 4 per cent believed too much force had been used.
With reports from Agence France-Presse and The Canadian Press