WATCH ABOVE: A UN school being used as a shelter by hundreds of Palestinian families was hit by shelling, killing at least 16 people. Israel has neither accepted responsibility , nor denied the attack, saying it is investigating and that Hamas rockets had been fired from the site. NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Gaza.
GAZA, Gaza Strip – A U.N. school in Gaza crowded with hundreds of Palestinians seeking refuge from fierce fighting came under fire Thursday, killing at least 15 civilians and leaving a sad tableau of blood-spattered pillows, blankets and children’s clothing scattered in the courtyard.
Palestinian officials blamed Israel for the shelling, which wounded dozens and came on the deadliest day so far of the current round of fighting. However, the Israeli military said the school “was not a target in any way” and raised the possibility the compound was hit by Hamas rockets.
WATCH: Thousands of Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers on Thursday night at the Qalandia checkpoint
Ominously, violence spread to the West Bank, where thousands of Palestinians protesting the Gaza fighting clashed with Israeli soldiers late Thursday in Qalandia, near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
At least one Palestinian was killed and dozens were injured, a Palestinian doctor said.
Meanwhile, Air Canada said it would resume flights to Tel Aviv beginning Thursday evening and “monitor developments closely.” The European Aviation Safety Agency lifted its recommendation that airlines avoid the Tel Aviv airport, and recommended national authorities base decisions on flying to Israel’s main airport “on thorough risk assessments.”
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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted restrictions on U.S. airlines flying into Tel Aviv as of 11:45 p.m. ET Wednesday evening. All three U.S. airlines serving Israel will resume flights there Thursday (United, Delta and US Airways) following the two-day hiatus.
The UN said the strike occurred as staff members were trying to arrange a humanitarian pause in the hostilities so they could evacuate the civilians from the compound in the northern town of Beit Hanoun. The Israeli military said it was reviewing the incident and suggested Hamas rockets may have been to blame, although it offered no proof.
Kamel al-Kafarne, who was in the school, said that the UN was putting people on buses when three tank shells hit.
“We were about to get out of the school, then they hit the school. They kept on shelling it,” he said.
Books, blankets, cushions and other belongings were scattered about the courtyard in the aftermath of the explosion. There was a large scorch mark in the courtyard marking the apparent site of impact.
Dozens of people, including children, were wheeled into a nearby hospital.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli shells had hit the compound; the Israeli military said Hamas had launched rockets that fell in the area that could have been responsible for the deaths.
“We can’t confirm that this is a result of errant fire. In any case, we do not target UN facilities,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said. Lerner said the military had urged the UN and the Red Cross to evacuate the school for three days leading up to the incident.
The UN said it was trying to do just that when the school was hit. Agency spokesman Chris Gunness said the UN had asked the Israeli military for a lull in fighting to allow for the school’s evacuation but did not hear back.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said UN staff were among the casualties and demanded that Israel and Hamas abide by international humanitarian law, respect “the sanctity of civilian life, the inviolability of UN premises” and protect humanitarian workers. He said more than 100,000 Gazans have sought refuge in UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) facilities.
“Today’s attack underscores the imperative for the killing to stop – and to stop now,” Ban said during a visit to Iraq.
VIDEO GALLERY: ISRAEL-GAZA CONFLICT
It was the fourth time a UN facility has been hit in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, since the Israeli operation began July 8. UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, has said it has found militant rockets inside two vacant schools but the target of Thursday’s strike was not immediately clear.
The Israeli military said it was reviewing the incident, saying that rockets launched by Hamas had landed in the Beit Hanoun area during fighting with its forces, and that those rockets may be responsible for the deaths.
Israel insists it does its utmost to prevent civilian casualties but says Hamas puts Palestinians in danger by hiding arms and fighters in civilian areas. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum condemned the violence, saying Israel was targeting displaced people and “committing massacres.”
Dozens of other people also were killed in a day of heavy fighting throughout the coastal territory, raising the overall Palestinian death toll in the conflict to at least 788, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. Israel has lost 32 soldiers, all since July 17, when it widened its air campaign into a full-scale ground operation. Two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel have also been killed by rocket or mortar fire.
Gaza resident Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei lives in one of the eastern villages of Khan Younis, which was hit hard Wednesday during the ground operation. Jamei is the executive director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and described the attacks as “extremely terrifying” in a phone interview with Global News.
“With each shelling, you hear two sounds: The sound when it explodes and the sound when it lands. So once it goes, it fires – you just wait and try to hear where it will hit, and you hope it is not hitting the place that is near you,” he said.
Jamei said there is no place in Gaza that’s “absolutely safe” and he worries about the effect on children in Gaza.
“Unfortunately, there is no good way to calm children when they just continue to hear the bombing and the shelling, and the reality speaks for itself sometimes that you cannot simply hide it.”
With the number of casualties growing on both sides, the international community has stepped up diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire. But Hamas is insisting on the lifting of the seven-year-old blockade, which was imposed when the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza from the Western-backed government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel says the war is meant to halt rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza and destroy a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spent the day in Cairo feverishly calling on regional leaders to help push Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire as a necessary first step toward resolving some of their long-standing mutual grievances.
As in years past – most recently in 2012 – the U.S. wants the violence to stop before it tries to negotiate specific demands each side has put forward. For Hamas, that includes the release of Palestinian prisoners in addition to the end of the economic blockade against Gaza.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, meanwhile, urged Hamas to agree on an immediate humanitarian cease-fire and said Israel and the Palestinian Authority could then come together to hold talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, made no reference to the cease-fire efforts in underscoring his determination to neutralize the rocket and tunnel threats.
Six members of the same family and an 18-month-old infant boy were killed when an Israeli airstrike hit the Jebaliya refugee camp early Thursday, according to Gaza police and health officials. Another airstrike on a home in the southern Gaza town of Abassan killed five members of another family, al-Kidra said.
Heavy fighting was reported along the border of central Gaza, according to Gaza police spokesman Ayman Batniji. Israeli troops fired tank shells that reached parts of the Bureij and Maghazi refugee camps, although no injuries were immediately reported. Clashes also erupted between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, Batniji said.
Israeli naval vessels meanwhile fired more than 100 shells along the coast of Gaza City and northern Gaza, the spokesman said, adding that rescue teams were unable to operate in the area because of the heavy fire.
Enav reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
© 2014 The Canadian Press