July 24, 2014 at 11:55 pm

U.N. school in Gaza hit by cross-fire

Israel, Hamas trade blame; 15 civilians killed

Hatem Moussa / AP)

Gaza City, Gaza Strip— A U.N. school in Gaza crowded with hundreds of Palestinians seeking refuge from fierce fighting came under fire Thursday, killing at least 15 civilians and leaving a sad tableau of blood-spattered pillows, blankets and children’s clothing scattered in the courtyard.

Palestinian officials blamed Israel for the shelling, which wounded dozens and came on the deadliest day so far of the current round of fighting. However, the Israeli military said the school “was not a target in any way” and raised the possibility the compound was hit by Hamas rockets.

Ominously, meanwhile, violence spread to the West Bank, where thousands of Palestinians protesting the Gaza fighting clashed with Israeli soldiers late Thursday in Qalandia, near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon angrily denounced the attack, saying the killing must “stop now.” But the frantic diplomatic efforts spanning the region were running into a brick wall: Israel demands that Hamas stop firing rockets without conditions, while Gaza’s Islamic militant rulers insist the seven-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory must end first.

“Many have been killed — including women and children, as well as U.N. staff,” Ban said in a statement, though he did not elaborate and a later U.N. communique made no mention of humanitarian workers being among the casualties.

In the aftermath of the attack, a child’s sandal decorated with a yellow flower lay in a puddle of blood, while sheep and cattle belonging to those seeking shelter grazed in the grass nearby. A large scorch mark scarred the spot where one of the shells hit.

The U.N. said it had been trying to achieve a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow the evacuation of civilians from the area.

Kamel al-Kafarne, who was in the school, said people were boarding buses when three tank shells hit. “We were about to get out of the school, then they hit the school. They kept on shelling it,” he said.

It was the fourth time a U.N. facility has been hit in Gaza fighting since the Israeli operation began on July 8. UNRWA, the U.N’s Palestinian refugee agency, has said it discovered dozens of Hamas rockets hidden inside two vacant schools, but U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the school hit Thursday in the northern town of Beit Hanoun was not one of them.

Who launched the attack against the U.N. compound in Beit Hanoun also was under dispute.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli shells hit the school. But Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, said the military was investigating and it was too early to know if the deaths were caused by an errant Israeli shell or Hamas fire.

Displaced Palestinians who had lost their relatives in an Israeli ... (Adel Hana / AP)
An Israeli tank moves through the morning mist near the Israel and Gaza ... (Dusan Vranic / AP)