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Wednesday 17 September 2014

US turns on Israel after UN chief calls strike on Gaza school a 'criminal act'

Doina Chiacu

Published 04/08/2014 | 02:30

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A Palestinian carries a wounded boy following what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike at a United Nations-run school, where displaced Palestinians are taking refuge, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip August 3, 2014. An Israeli air strike killed at least 10 people and wounded about 30 others on Sunday in a U.N.-run school in the southern Gaza Strip, a Palestinian official said, as dozens died in Israeli shelling of the enclave and Hamas fired rockets at Israel. The Israeli military said it was looking into the reported attack, the second to hit a school in less than a week.  REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
A Palestinian carries a wounded boy following what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike at a United Nations-run school, where displaced Palestinians are taking refuge, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Reuters
A Palestinian medic carries the dead body of an infant who was evacuated from under the rubble of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike that killed at least nine members from the al-Ghol family, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip August 3, 2014. Renewed Israeli shelling killed at least 30 people in Gaza on Sunday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to keep up pressure on Hamas even after the army completes its core mission of destroying a tunnel network that extends into Israel. Shelling exchanges continued on Sunday, pushing the Gaza death toll given by Palestinian officials to 1,708, most of them civilians. Israel has confirmed that 64 soldiers have died in combat, while Palestinian shelling has also killed three civilians in Israel. Israel began its air and naval offensive against Gaza on July 8 following a surge of cross-border rocket salvoes by Hamas and other guerrillas, later escalating into ground incursions. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
A Palestinian medic carries the dead body of an infant who was evacuated from under the rubble of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike that killed at least nine members from the al-Ghol family, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Reuters
Israeli soldiers mourn during the funeral of their comrade Lieutenant Hadar Goldin in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv. Reuters
Israeli soldiers mourn during the funeral of their comrade Lieutenant Hadar Goldin in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv. Reuters

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.

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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.

Irish Independent

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