Palestinian authorities claimed that a United Nations school was hit by Israeli tank shells early Wednesday, resulting in the deaths of 15 people and injuring 90, while Israel announced a four-hour cease-fire for parts of the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military said it fired after its soldiers were targeted by mortars operating from the vicinity of the school.
“In response, soldiers fired toward the origins of fire. And we’re still reviewing the incident,” the military said in a statement.
The shelling came amid the heaviest air and artillery assault by Israel against targets in Gaza since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge earlier this month.
On Wednesday afternoon, Israel’s military declared a four-hour cease-fire in some areas of the Gaza Strip, saying it’s for humanitarian reasons. The cease-fire began at 3 p.m. local time. Hamas militants in Gaza had no immediate reaction.
Earlier Wednesday, the IDF claimed it hit 75 sites, including five mosques it said were being used by militants to hide weapons and gain access to tunnels that extend into Israel. Hamas militants have used the tunnels to slip across the border between Israel and Gaza and attack Israeli soldiers and civilians. The IDF also claimed that it had destroyed three such tunnels in the previous 24 hours.
In total, the Israeli army says that 32 tunnels have been located. However, it is not clear how many remain.
Health officials in Gaza say that at least 1,284 people have been killed in the violence, with more than 7,100 wounded. It is not clear how many of the Palestinian dead are civilians and how many are militants. Israel has lost 53 soldiers and three civilians.
Tank shells hit the U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp early Wednesday, said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. The agency is sheltering more than 200,000 people displaced by the fighting at dozens of U.N. schools in Gaza.
Ashraf al-Kidra, a Gaza health official, said at least 15 people were killed and about 90 wounded in the school strike. In all, 55 Palestinians were killed by airstrikes and tank shelling in different areas of Gaza on Wednesday, he added.
Starting at around 4:30 a.m., several shells hit the compound of the Abu Hussein school, a few minutes apart, said the principal, Fayez Abu Dayeh. He said shells hit two classrooms and a bathroom.
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.”
In one of the classrooms, the front wall was blown out, leaving debris and bloodied clothing. Another strike tore a large round hole into the ceiling of a second floor class-room.
About two hours after the strike, hundreds of people still crowded the courtyard, some dazed, others wailing.
Aishe Abu Darabeh, 56, sat on the ground with her relatives, just a few meters from the destroyed classroom.
“Where will we go?” she asked. “Where will we go next? We fled and they (the Israelis) are following us.”
Four of the dead were killed just outside the school compound, two in their home and two who were struck in the street after returning from pre-dawn prayers, their relatives said.
The bodies of two members of the al-Najar family, 56-year-old Shaher and his 41-year-old brother, Bassem, were laid out in one of the rooms of their small home, surrounded by wailing relatives.
Outside the gate, another relative held on to his crying son, hugging him tight and saying: “I’m here, I’m not going anywhere.”
Abu Hasna, the U.N. agency spokesman, said the international community must step in.
“It’s the responsibility of the world to tell us what we shall do with more than 200,000 people who are inside our schools, thinking that the U.N. flag will protect them,” he said. “This incident today proves that no place is safe in Gaza.”
In the southern town of Khan Younis, 10 members of one family were killed when an airstrike hit a relative’s home where they had sought refuge from the fighting, al-Kidra said.
After the strike, relatives climbed over large piles of debris, surveying shattered windows and demolished walls.
“When the strike happened, I was sleeping, me and my brother and one of my relatives, we were sleeping. And we tried to look through the window to see what happened. But we couldn’t see anything because of the smoke. And when we came down, we saw everything was damaged,” said Mohammed al-Astal, a relative.
In the Gaza City neighborhood of Tufah, shelling killed at last seven members of another family, including four children, said Ayman Sahabani, the head of the emergency room at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital.
Israel has vowed to stop the Hamas rocket and mortar fire that has reached increasingly deeper into its territory and to destroy a sophisticated network of Hamas military tunnels used for attacks in Israel.
The military said that since fighting began July 8, Israeli forces have hit 4,100 targets in Gaza, about one-third connected to the militants’ ability to launch rockets at Israel. Over the same period, the IDF says, Hamas has fired over 2,670 rockets at Israeli civilians.
Israel says Hamas militants often launch rockets from crowded residential areas, thus endangering nearby civilians. The army says it has also given civilians a chance to leave dangerous areas by sending warnings in phone calls and leaflets.
On Wednesday, aircraft dropped leaflets over Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood. The leaflets urged residents to stay away from Hamas militants and to report possible rocket launches. The leaflet gave a contact phone number and email.
“The Israeli Defense Forces are going into a new phase in the coming operation and does not want to harm civilians,” the leaflet said. “The army is warning residents in the areas where the operation will take place that for your safety, you have to keep away from terrorists and the locations from which they operate.”
Hamas has so far rejected cease-fire efforts unless its demands are met, including a lifting of a punishing blockade.