GAZA CITY — A U.N. facility was hit by Israeli tank shells on Thursday, killing at least 15 and wounding dozens more seeking shelter as clashes between the Israeli military and Hamas ramped up on the 17th day of the conflict.
The U.N. was attempting to arrange a humanitarian pause in the fighting in order to evacuate civilians from the U.N. school in the northern town of Beit Hanoun when it was hit.
"We were about to get out of the school, then they hit the school. They kept on shelling it," Kamel al-Kafarne said.
The Israeli military said it was reviewing the incident, and suggested Hamas-launched rockets may be responsible for the deaths, but provided little additional information.
"We can't confirm that this is a result of errant fire. In any case, we do not target U.N. facilities," military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said, who said Israel had urged officials to evacuate the school three days earlier.
U.N. staff were among the casualties, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called on Hamas and Israel to respect "the sanctity of civilian life, the inviolability of U.N. premises."
"Today's attack underscores the imperative for the killing to stop — and to stop now," Ban said during a visit to Iraq.
The strike is the fourth time a U.N. facility has been hit during fighting between Israel and Hamas. UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, has said it has found militant rockets inside two vacant schools.
Condemning the violence, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel was targeting displaced people and "committing massacres." Israel maintains it does all it can to prevent civilians casualties and that Hamas puts Palestinians in danger by hiding weapons in crowded civilian areas.
The deaths raised the number of Palestinians killed in the conflict to at least 788, most of them civilians, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says 32 of its soldiers have been killed since July 17, when it widened its air campaign into a full-scale ground operation aimed at halting rocket fire from Gaza and destroying a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels. Two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel have also been killed.
More than 2,000 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza since July 8, and the Israeli military says it has uncovered more than 30 tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel, which Israel says Hamas uses to carry out attacks.
The fresh violence came as the Israeli parliament swore in Reuven Rivlin on Thursday as the country's new president, replacing Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres.
Meanwhile, the international community continued to step up its efforts to implement a Israeli-Palestinian truce, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon traveling to the region to meet with various Arab leaders.
On Thursday, Kerry spent time in Cairo to gather support among regional leaders for a cease-fire. A cease-fire proposal brokered by the Egyptians last week failed because it did not contain a clause to lift the Israeli and Egyptian blockades — a key Hamas demand — and the militant group said it was not consulted on the terms of the deal.
"We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices," said Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal at a news conference in Qatar on Wednesday. "We will not accept anything but the end of the siege."
Israel imposed the blockade in 2006 after Hamas and other militants abducted an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid. It tightened the siege in 2007 after Hamas seized power from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but had eased some of the restrictions in recent years.
Egypt tightened its own restrictions last year after the overthrow of a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo and has destroyed many of the cross-border smuggling tunnels that sustained Gaza's economy, and which were also used by Hamas to bring in arms.
The attack on the U.N. school "underscores the need to end the violence and to achieve a sustainable cease-fire and enduring resolution to the crisis in Gaza as soon as possible," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
For Ahmed Meri in Gaza, the international efforts aimed at stopping the violence are not enough.
"Where is the international community to see how we are being massacred?" Meri asked. "I was against Hamas but now I'm with any party that can avenge our deaths."
Michele Chabin reported from Jerusalem; Contributing: The Associated Press