WATCH: Aftermath of deadly airstrike on Gaza market
GAZA, Gaza Strip – Israeli strikes hit a crowded shopping area in Gaza City, hours after tank shells tore through the walls of a UN school crowded with war refugees Wednesday in the deadliest of a series of air and artillery attacks that push the Palestinian death toll above 1,360 in more than three weeks of fighting.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson reiterated Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s demand for an immediate cease-fire in the escalating war between Israel and Hamas, and expressed “shock and dismay” after Wednesday’s attack on the school in the Jebaliya refugee camp. He said an initial assessment by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees blamed Israeli artillery. He noted that an Israeli spokesman said Israel responded to mortar fire in the vicinity of the school.
WATCH: Ban Ki-moon calls attack on UN school in Gaza ‘unjustifiable’
Gaza health officials said 16 people were killed and 150 were wounded in the strike on a Gaza market, which was busy because residents thought a cease-fire was in place. The Israeli military had no immediate comment, though Israel had earlier said the “humanitarian window” did not apply to Shijaiyah, where the strike on the market occurred. Hamas dismissed the cease-fire, and Gaza militants fired 27 rockets at Israel after it began.
The second airstrike struck an area about 500 metres away, according to witnesses, immediately killing at least 16 people, among them local Palestinian photographer Rami Rayan, who was wearing a press vest at the time.
“People were in the street and in the market, mostly women and kids. Suddenly more than 10 shells landed in the area, the market, in the Turkman area, and next to the gas station,” said Salim Qadoum, 26, who witnessed the strike.
“The area now is like a blood bath, everyone is wounded or killed. People lost their limbs and were screaming for help. It’s a massacre. I vomited when I saw what happened.”
Israeli airstrikes and shelling killed more than 108 Palestinians across the coastal territory throughout the day Wednesday.
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The military had declared a four-hour humanitarian cease-fire in parts of Gaza beginning at 3:00 p.m., but Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said it lacked any “value” because it excluded border areas from where Hamas wanted to evacuate the wounded.
Gaza militants fired 84 rockets at Israel Wednesday, including more than 26 after the cease-fire was announced, the military said. Al-Kidra, the Gaza health official, said seven Palestinians were killed by an Israeli airstrike in the same period.
The Israeli military said three of its soldiers were killed Wednesday when a house Palestinian militants had rigged with explosives collapsed after they identified an entrance to a tunnel inside. More than a dozen soldiers were wounded in heavy fighting Wednesday, it said.
WATCH: Moment of airstrike that killed 7 in Gaza ahead of cease-fire
The latest violence further dimmed hopes of a sustainable truce in the fighting, now in its fourth week. The strike at the UN school in the Jebaliya refugee camp came on the heels of Israel’s heaviest air and artillery assault so far in the conflict.
In Jebaliya, tank shells hit the UN school before dawn, said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency. The agency is sheltering more than 200,000 people displaced by the fighting at dozens of UN schools across the coastal strip. Al-Kidra, the Gaza health official, said at least 17 people were killed and about 90 wounded in the strike.
The Israeli military said it fired back after its soldiers were targeted by mortar rounds launched from the vicinity of the school.
The mortar shells were fired from a distance of some 200 metres from the school, said an Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
WATCH: UN officials shocked and dismayed by attack on school
Assad Sabah said he and his five children were huddling under desks in one of the classrooms because of the constant sound of tank fire throughout the night.
“We were scared to death,” he said. “After 4:30 a.m., tanks started firing more. Three explosions shook the school.”"One classroom collapsed over the head of the people who were inside."
About two hours after the strike, hundreds of people still crowded the school courtyard, some dazed, others wailing.
Aishe Abu Darabeh, 56, sat on the ground with her relatives.
“Where will we go?” she asked. “Where will we go next? We fled and they (the Israelis) are following us.”
The UN said it was the sixth school to be hit since the conflict began on July 8, and the second to cause deaths. At least 15 civilians also were killed last Thursday when the courtyard of a UN school in Gaza City was hit. Israel has acknowledged that troops fired a mortar shell that hit the courtyard but said aerial footage shows the yard was empty at the time and that the shell could not have killed anyone.
“I reached levels of anger and indignation about the fact that despite all the efforts that we have put in, to ensure that places like these would be respected, that people in them would be protected when they were there – that this was not the case is intolerable,” said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the UNRWA commissioner general.
The White House also condemned the deadly shelling. White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also said the U.S. is “extremely concerned” that thousands of Palestinians aren’t safe in UN-designated shelters, despite being told by Israel’s military to leave their homes. Israel has been warning civilians by phone and leaflet to leave dangerous areas ahead of strikes on militant targets.
On Wednesday, aircraft dropped leaflets over Gaza City’s Rimal neighbourhood, urging residents to stay away from Hamas militants and to report possible rocket launches. The leaflet gave a contact phone number and email and warned of a new operation.
Israel says its Gaza operation is meant to stop Hamas rocket and mortar fire that has reached increasingly deeper into its territory and to destroy a sophisticated network of tunnels used for attacks inside Israel. Hamas has steadfastly refused efforts to forge a truce, insisting its demands including the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade must be met first.
WATCH: Footage of Hamas fighters carrying out tunnel attack
Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, the head of the army’s southern command, said Israel was “a few days” away from destroying the 32 tunnels it has located so far. More than two-thirds of those have been demolished, according to Adelstein, the senior military official.
“Hamas could have built two hospitals, 20 schools, 20 clinics and 100 kindergartens with the amount of cement they used to build the tunnels,” Turgeman said.
Israeli leaders have said that troops will not leave until all the Hamas tunnels have been demolished. The army said 32 tunnels have so far been located but did not say how many remain. Since Tuesday morning, troops have demolished three more tunnels, a statement said.
Enav reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem and Ariel David from southern Israel contributed to this report.
© 2014 The Canadian Press