A Palestinian girl carries belongings as she and her family leave the Abu Hussein U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp that was hit earlier by an Israeli strike on Wednesday. (Khalil Hamra / AP)
Gaza City, Gaza Strip — Israeli strikes hit a crowded shopping area in Gaza City Wednesday, hours after tank shells tore through the walls of a U.N. school crowded with war refugees in the deadliest of a series of air and artillery attacks that pushed the Palestinian death toll above 1,360 in more than three weeks of fighting.
The bloodshed came on the heels of an escalation by both sides fighting in the embattled coastal territory, further dimming prospects for a sustainable cease-fire despite international diplomatic efforts.
The Obama administration condemned the deadly shelling, using tough, yet carefully worded language that reflects growing White House irritation with Israel and the mounting civilian casualties stemming from its ground and air war against Hamas.
The attack on the U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp was the second deadly strike on a U.N. compound in a week. Tank shells slammed into the compound before dawn, said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which is sheltering more than 200,000 people displaced by the fighting at dozens of U.N. schools across Gaza.
Gaza health ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 17 people were killed and about 90 wounded in the school strike.
The Israeli military said it fired back after its soldiers were targeted by mortar rounds launched from the vicinity of the school.
Assad Sabah said he and his five children were huddling under desks in one of the classrooms because of the constant sound of tank fire throughout the night.
“We were scared to death,” he said. “After 4:30 a.m., tanks started firing more. Three explosions shook the school.”
“One classroom collapsed over the head of the people who were inside,” he said.
In one classroom, the front wall was blown out, leaving debris and bloodied clothing. Another strike tore a large round hole in the ceiling of a second-floor classroom.
Hundreds of people crowded the school courtyard after the strike, some dazed, others wailing.
“Where will we go?” asked Aishe Abu Darabeh, 56. “Where will we go next? We fled and they (the Israelis) are following us.”
In all, 1,361 Palestinians have been killed — 116 on Wednesday — and more than 7,600 wounded since the July 8 start of fighting, al-Kidra said.
The Israeli military said three of its soldiers were killed when a booby-trapped house collapsed after they identified an entrance to a tunnel inside, raising to 56 the number killed since a ground war began earlier this month. Three civilians also have been killed on the Israeli side.
The U.N. said it was the sixth school to be hit since the conflict began, and the second to cause deaths. At least 15 civilians also were killed last Thursday when the courtyard of a U.N. school in Gaza City was hit. Israel has acknowledged that troops fired a mortar shell that hit the courtyard but said aerial footage shows the yard was empty at the time and that the shell could not have killed anyone.
“I reached levels of anger and indignation about the fact that despite all the efforts that we have put in, to ensure that places like these would be respected, that people in them would be protected when they were there — that this was not the case is intolerable,” said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the UNRWA commissioner general.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Wednesday’s trike “outrageous” and “unjustifiable,” and demanded an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas.
“Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children,” Ban said.