Israelis hit 2 U.N. schools; dozens dead

The Baltimore Sun

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Shells fired by Israeli forces hit a United Nations school yesterday, killing at least 30 Palestinians who had sought shelter there on a day when Israeli forces pushed deeper into the Gaza Strip and a Hamas rocket struck a town about 20 miles south of Tel Aviv.

Street battles rumbled across the Palestinian enclave and bloodshed showed no signs of ebbing, despite renewed calls by Arab and European leaders for the U.N. Security Council to demand a cease-fire. International pressure on Israel intensified after Palestinian medical officials reported that 75 Gazans were killed yesterday as Israeli forces swept into more densely populated areas.

John Ging, the senior U.N. official in Gaza, said 30 Palestinians were killed and 50 wounded when three artillery shells hit the Al Fakhoura School in the Jabaliya refugee camp. Palestinian doctors put the death toll at 37, including women and children.

Hours earlier, the United Nations reported that another of its schools in the Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza, which had been closed because of the fighting, was hit by an Israeli missile early yesterday, killing three Palestinian cousins who had taken shelter inside. Hundreds of Gazans have been relying on U.N. buildings as havens during the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants that began 12 days ago when Israel initiated airstrikes designed to halt Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel.

The Israeli army said the school in Jabaliya was targeted after militants launched mortar rounds from its grounds. An army statement said Hamas "terror operatives" Imad Abu Askhar and Hassan Abu Askhar were among the dead.

"We face a very delicate situation where Hamas is using the citizens of Gaza as a protective vest," said Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied that his organization was staging attacks from the school and accused Israel of carrying out "an open war on innocent civilians."

Israeli warships battered the coast as troops and tanks, after intense fighting around Gaza City, pushed south to Khan Younis, where skirmishes continued through the day.

Thousands of Gaza families have abandoned their homes, fleeing the front lines or because of their proximity to security installations. But even many purely civilian neighborhoods are not safe because Gaza militants often fire rockets from them, and Israel continues to bomb the homes of Hamas commanders and buildings and mosques that it believes are used as weapons storehouses. As a result, nearly every neighborhood in Gaza is full of sites that Israel considers legitimate military targets.

The situation is perilous even for those seeking maternity care. Women face the decision of whether to deliver at home or risk trying to reach a medical facility where critically injured patients take priority. Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital emptied its maternity ward on the first day of the Israeli air assault.

The Israeli offensive has failed to stop the rocket fire from Gaza. A rocket exploded yesterday in Gedera, 25 miles northeast of Gaza and the closest so far to Tel Aviv. The strike, which injured a baby, was the farthest north by a Hamas rocket. About 1 million Israelis are within range of rockets fired from Gaza, said Mickey Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman.

Palestinian medical authorities said that shelling from Israeli ships killed at least 10 people and wounded 20 at the Deir Al-Balah refugee camp. Airstrikes on the Al Burejj refugee camp killed a father and three sons, and an airstrike in Zeiton killed 13 members of one family.

About 600 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its offensive Dec. 27, according to Gaza hospital authorities. The United Nations says about 25 percent of the victims have been civilians. Israel's military said that a soldier was killed by one of its own tanks. Six Israeli soldiers have been killed, including four hit by "friendly fire," and four Israeli civilians have been killed by Hamas rockets.

"I want to tell the world's leaders something: You are not to sleep, eat or drink until you stop the killing of innocent people in the Gaza Strip," said Ging, adding that 1 million Palestinians were without electricity and 700,000 without water. "There's nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone is terrorized and traumatized."

In Washington, President-elect Barack Obama expressed concern about casualties on both sides but insisted that he must defer to President George W. Bush until his inauguration.

Arab foreign ministers and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations to urge the Security Council to pass a cease-fire resolution.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy went to Damascus yesterday to ask Syrian President Bashar Assad for help in ending the fighting. A Hamas delegation met in Cairo with Egyptian officials who have been trying to broker a peace deal.

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