US turns on Israel after UN chief calls strike on Gaza school a 'criminal act'
The United States declared yesterday it was "appalled" by the "disgraceful" shelling by Israel of a United Nations school sheltering some 3,000 displaced people in southern Gaza.
In language that was rare in its directness and severity, the US denounced in a statement the attack earlier in the day that killed 10 people, noting that the school had been designated a protected location.
"The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israel Defense Forces," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in the statement. "We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties."
The US condemnation follows one by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who depicted the shelling near the Rafah school as both "a moral outrage and a criminal act".
In response, Israel said it would unilaterally hold fire in most of the Gaza Strip on Monday to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid and allow some of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by an almost four-week-old war to go home.
The announcement, made first to Palestinian media, met with suspicion from Gaza's dominant Hamas Islamists and followed the unusually strong censure from Washington.
An Israeli defence official said the ceasefire, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (0700 to 1400 GMT), would apply everywhere but areas of the southern town of Rafah where ground forces have intensified assaults after three soldiers died in a Hamas ambush there on Friday.
"If the truce is breached, the military will return fire during the declared duration of the truce," the official said. The official said east Rafah was the only urban area in which troops and tanks were still present, having been withdrawn or redeployed near Gaza's border with Israel over the weekend.
It comes after the latest atrocity in the conflict yesterday.
According to witnesses, Israeli strikes hit just outside the main gates of the school. The Red Crescent charity said the strike occurred while people were in line to get food from aid workers. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said in addition to the dead, 35 people were wounded.
Robert Turner, director of operations for the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said the building had been providing shelter for some 3,000 people. He said the strike killed at least one UN worker.
"The locations of all these installations have been passed to the Israeli military multiple times," Turner said. "They know where these shelters are. How this continues to happen, I have no idea."
Inside the school's compound, several bodies, among them children, were strewn across the ground in puddles of blood. "Our trust and our fate is only in the hands of God!" one woman cried.
The Israeli military said it had targeted three wanted militants on a motorcycle in the vicinity and was "reviewing the consequences of this strike".
Earlier, a senior Palestinian diplomat expressed outrage over killings and bloodshed on both sides in Gaza and called for negotiations to end the savage fighting that has gone on for nearly a month.
"What we need now is to stop this fighting, to address the tragic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip," Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN, said, adding "these things need to be stopped".
He said that putting the people of Gaza "in a continuous situation of confrontation and fighting" will only lead to more violence, saying "This is an excellent atmosphere for radicalism. But if you give them (Palestinians) hope, you open the borders, you let them go to school, let them look for good jobs, let them look for moderation. And we will succeed in allowing all those who want to have peace ... to have the upper hand."
Pierre Krahenbuhl, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, called the shelling a clear violation of international law. "These are premises that are protected, the sanctity of which has to be respected by all parties," he said.
Meanwhile, Israel withdrew most of its ground troops from the Gaza Strip yesterday in an apparent winding down of the nearly month-long operation.
Even as Israel said it was close to completing its mission, heavy fighting raged in parts of Gaza.
And with Hamas officials vowing to continue their fight, it remained uncertain whether Israel could unilaterally end the war.
Lt Col Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed the bulk of ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza after the military concluded it had destroyed most of the tunnel network.
"We've caused substantial damage to this network to an extent where we've basically taken this huge threat and made it minimal," he said. The army had thousands of troops in Gaza at the height of the operation.
Lerner said, however, that the operation was not over and that Israel would continue to target Hamas' rocket-firing capabilities and its ability to infiltrate Israel.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on against Hamas, he is coming under international pressure to halt the fighting because of the heavy civilian death toll.