The latest Israeli attack on a United Nations school sheltering 3,000 homeless Gazans was “a moral outrage and a criminal act”, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said yesterday.
“This madness must stop,” Mr Ban said after at least 10 people were killed when a shell exploded near the entrance to the school in Rafah in southern Gaza.
There were scenes of chaos at the school, as rescuers tried to bring out the injured while Palestinians sprinted frantically away through pools of blood, clutching young children in their arms.
In his most strongly worded statement yet, Mr Ban said Israeli forces had repeatedly been given the coordinates of UN shelters, and their third attack on a school in 10 days was “yet another gross violation of international humanitarian law”.
“This attack, along with other breaches of international law, must be swiftly investigated and those responsible held accountable. It is a moral outrage and a criminal act,” he said.
Mr Ban said he was “profoundly dismayed over the appalling escalation of violence and loss of hundreds of Palestinian civilian lives”, and repeated his demand for an immediate ceasefire.
The United States said it was appalled by the attack and called for a full and prompt investigation. “Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties,” the state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Images of the carnage in Gaza have shocked the public worldwide, and some international political allies are distancing themselves from Israel. The British foreign secretary Philip Hammond demanded an unconditional ceasefire to resolve the “intolerable situation for civilians trapped in Gaza”.
Many people were “deeply disturbed” by the civilian loss of life, Mr Hammond told the Sunday Telegraph. “We have to get the killing to stop.”
The 28-day-old conflict has claimed the lives of 1,766 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Of the 66 Israelis killed, 64 have been soldiers, including Lt Hadar Goldin, who the Israeli army now admits is dead after first claiming he had been captured by Hamas militants.
That belief led to the Israeli assault on Rafah, which began early on Friday after Hamas breached a proposed 72-hour humanitarian truce by ambushing a group of soldiers, killing two of them.
Israel said initially that a third soldier, Lt Goldin, had been taken by Hamas, but early yesterday the Israeli army said he had been “killed in battle in the Gaza Strip on Friday”.
Army radio said no body had been recovered, making the decision to announce his death “very delicate”. It is not known where his body is.
Israel’s army confirmed yesterday it had begun withdrawing some troops from Gaza.
“We are removing some,” Lt Col Peter Lerner said. Troops were “extremely close” to completing a mission to destroy a network of attack tunnels, he said.
“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.
“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 continuing.”
Intensive international attempts to broker a diplomatic end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas have proved fruitless but the efforts are continuing.
* Reporting by Agence France-Presse