GAZA CITY – At least 10 people died in a fresh strike on a U.N. school in Gaza Sunday shortly after Israel confirmed it had begun withdrawing some troops from the war-torn enclave.
The strike on the school sheltering displaced Palestinians in the southern city of Rafah came as Israel pounded the region following the suspected capture of a soldier by militants, who was later declared dead.
It was the third time in 10 days that a U.N. school had been hit and came four days after Israeli tank shells slammed into a school in the northern town of Jabaliya, killing 16 in an attack furiously denounced by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon as “reprehensible.”
An AFP correspondent said there were scenes of chaos at the site, with rescuers trying to evacuate the wounded any way they could, while adults were seen sprinting frantically away through pools of blood, young children clutched in their arms.
Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), said the school had been housing thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) who had been forced to flee their homes by the ongoing violence in Gaza.
Overcome with grief, former BBC reporter and current spokesman for UNRWA Chris Gunness loses it during a recent interview with Al-Jazeera:
‘Multiple deaths and injuries’
“Shelling incident in vicinity of UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering almost 3,000 IDP. Initial reports say multiple deaths and injury,” he wrote on his Twitter feed.
Shelling incident in vicinity of UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering almost 3,000 IDP. Initial reports say multimple deaths and injury
— Chris Gunness (@ChrisGunness) August 3, 2014
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the shelling, calling it “a moral outrage and a criminal act.”
“This madness must stop,” he said.
“The bloodshed needs to stop,” said a statement signed by the European Union and the European Commission presidents on behalf of the bloc’s 28 member states.
“We deplore the terrible loss of lives, including innocent women and children,” it said, condemning the “intolerable violence” being suffered by Gaza residents.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond demanded an unconditional ceasefire to resolve the “intolerable” situation for civilians. And in Cairo, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi demanded both sides “immediately” halt their fire.
But there was little respite on the ground, where more than 71 people were killed in Rafah alone in a fresh wave of bloodshed which sent the death toll soaring over 1,800 in the confrontation, now in its 27th day.
A Palestinian delegation was to hold truce talks Sunday in Cairo with senior U.S. and Egyptian officials, but Israel has said it sees no point in sending its negotiators to the meeting, citing what it says are Hamas breaches of previous agreed truces.
Islamic Jihad was also expected to join along with U.S. Middle East envoy Frank Lowenstein.
Several Israeli newspapers reported that Cabinet ministers have taken a decision not to seek a further negotiated ceasefire agreement with Hamas and were considering ending the military operation unilaterally.
Israel’s army announced on Sunday it had begun withdrawing some troops from Gaza with a military spokesman saying the ground operation was “changing gear.”
“We are removing some [forces],” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told AFP, saying troops were “extremely close” to completing a mission to destroy a network of attack tunnels.
“We are redeploying within the Gaza Strip, taking out other positions, and relieving other forces from within, so it won’t be the same type of ground operation,” he said.
“But indeed we will continue to operate … [and] have a rapid reaction force on the ground that can engage Hamas if required.
“It’s changing gear but it’s still ongoing.”
Soldier declared dead
Israel’s assault on the southern city of Rafah began early on Friday in the opening hours of a 72-hour humanitarian truce, which was quickly shattered when militants ambushed a group of soldiers, killing two of them.
A third was reported missing, believed snatched in a development which drew sharp condemnation from top U.S. and U.N. officials.
But early on Sunday, the Israeli army formally announced the death of the soldier, 23-year-old Hadar Goldin, saying he had been “killed in battle in the Gaza Strip on Friday.”
Army radio said no body had been recovered, rendering the decision to announce his death “very delicate.” There was no word on the whereabouts of his remains.
Hamas’s Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades acknowledged its militants had staged an ambush in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed, but denied holding Goldin.
His death raised to 64 the total number of soldiers killed since the start of the operation to July 8, its heaviest toll since the Lebanon war of 2006.
Nonetheless, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with the operation, promising that Hamas would pay “an insufferable price” for continued cross-border rocket fire.
Leaving Beit Lahiya
“We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed,” he said late on Saturday, saying troops would complete their mission to destroy the tunnels after which the next security objectives would be decided.
His remarks came after the army gave a first indication it was ending operations in parts of Gaza, informing residents of Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra in the north that it was “safe” to return home.
Witnesses in the north confirmed seeing troops leaving the area as others were seen pulling out of villages east of Khan Yunis in the south as commentators suggested it was the start of a unilateral withdrawal.