A Palestinian man carries a wounded girl to Shifa hospital in Gaza City.
A Palestinian man carries a wounded girl to Shifa hospital in Gaza City.

Israeli strikes on UN schools kill 33

Gaza // At least 33 civilians were killed and more than 55 wounded by Israeli fire on two UN-run schools in Gaza yesterday, capping a day of heated battles and rising civilian deaths on the eleventh day of Israel's attack on Gaza. At least three people were killed when a bomb landed on a UN-run school in the Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza yesterday afternoon, and at least 30 others were killed in an attack on a similar school in the crowded Jabalya refugee camp hours later. The victims had taken refuge at the schools after fighting near their homes along the border broke out, and had apparently acted on Israeli leaflets warning residents to leave the area before the ground invasion began on Saturday night. The UN had supplied the Israeli military with the co-ordinates of all of its schools, anticipating the arrival of families seeking refuge there, UN officials in Gaza said. Israel regularly accuses Hamas and other militant groups of using schools, mosques and hospitals as cover for their operations to avoid Israeli forces. In a statement, the UN said it was "strongly protesting these killings to the Israeli authorities and is calling for an immediate and impartial investigation". "Where it is found that international humanitarian law has been violated, those responsible must be held to account. Under international law, installations such as schools, health centres and UN facilities should be protected from attack. Well before the current fighting, the UN had given to the Israeli authorities the GPS co-ordinates of all its installations in Gaza, including Asma elementary school." The attack represents the worst known incident of civilian deaths since the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. It brings the known death toll from the campaign to more than 600, with far more lives assumed lost because doctors and medics say they are unable to reach most of the areas of heavy fighting. Thousands have been wounded. After the first school attack, a UN official described conditions inside Gaza as "terrifying". "There's nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorised and traumatised," John Ging, the top UN official in Gaza, told reporters in New York by a video link from Gaza City. "They were in the UN compound and seeking refuge. If they had been at home, they would have been suffering the same fate." The Israeli assault began in response to the refusal by Hamas to continue a somewhat successful ceasefire that ended in mid-December. Hamas and other Gaza militant groups then resumed firing rockets into southern Israel. Hundreds have been launched since Israel began its air assault on Dec 27. Despite heavy international pressure and a number of diplomatic initiatives sponsored by various world leaders, Israel continues to refuse to discuss halting the invasion and air attacks. Israeli troops first entered the outskirts of eastern Gaza City on Monday evening, engaging Hamas and aligned militants in heavy fighting, killing at least 100 fighters and capturing another 80, according to Israeli military statements. At least four Israel soldiers were killed and dozens wounded in a series of friendly fire incidents in which Israeli tanks fired on Israeli infantry positions in buildings surrounding Gaza City. The new stage of fighting follows more than a week of bombardment of Gaza from air, land and sea. Hospitals in southern Israel began to fill on Monday night with large numbers of wounded soldiers as the battlefield turned from the open spaces of northern Gaza, often used by militants to launch rockets, to the denser urban landscape of Gaza's crowded cities and refugee camps where Israeli technology is less of an advantage and civilian casualties are generally much higher. Five Israeli soldiers in all have died since Saturday night's invasion. Abu Bilal, a commander for the Hamas-aligned Islamic Jihad movement, said the resistance strategy was to draw Israeli troops into dense urban environments in Gaza City, Rafah refugee camp, Khan Younis and Jabaliya. "We have been fighting Israeli tanks our entire lives," said Abu Ali, a Rafah-based fighter. "When they entered, we were ordered by our commanders not to engage them in the fields. We were told to stay down, between buildings inside Rafah and to hold our fire until they came inside." "We know the planes and tanks will kill our men if they enter open land," Abu Bilal added. "We're not stupid. We know what the Israelis want from us. We will make them come take our lives inside, where we can fight them." "We want them to come too much," Abu Ali said. "We stay between the houses where they cannot see us." Meanwhile Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, defended the campaign yesterday as worth the price paid in lives on both sides. "We are now in the 11th day of Operation Cast Lead. Last night, we paid a heavy price," Mr Barak told Israeli reporters in the border town of Sederot, just outside Gaza. "It is a bitter battle, but an unavoidable one." For Palestinians in Gaza, conditions have grown increasingly more dire as water and food run short, and with nowhere to go for safety, "Now no one has food in [the] homes," said one man in the Rafah camp, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. "All of the people in Rafah say that Hamas brought this upon us: no food, no medicine, no water. We used to only hate the Israelis, now we hate them both the same." One UN school in the Rafah camp, converted into temporary housing for people fleeing the troubled border area with Egypt, was said to be "completely disgusting" with hundreds of people living without food, water, toilets, electricity or adequate shelter from the cold winter nights. "You see the families walking the streets looking for help from people all day," said a Rafah resident. "But no one has anything themselves to help them." Gaza City also suffers from a massive humanitarian crisis, according to residents, who lost water supplies on Monday after pumping stations in northern Gaza were struck by shelling. Most families are unable to venture outside to search for food and the vast majority of markets are closed or empty. Although water service was somewhat restored yesterday afternoon, residents report a maximum of two hours of water and electricity a day, if any arrives at all. But after Monday's shelling, there are grave concerns about the quality of the water now occasionally coming out of the taps. "You cannot drink it," said one resident of Gaza City. "It comes out brown or red and even if boiled, it's full of dirt and sewage. Maybe you could wash a plate or shower with it, but most people won't do that. But you can't drink it anymore." Those with remaining supplies in their homes often have no cooking gas to prepare the humanitarian rations they have been provided. Even in times of calm in recent years, up to 90 per cent of Gaza's residents have received food aid from a UN programme. Abu Ibrahim, who has eight children and a wife, said he has been unable to drive his taxi for more than 10 days to earn money, and even doubts there is anything to buy if he could. "I was given a little rice and sugar by the UN," he said. "We have no gas, so we burn one piece of wood a day to make one small meal of rice. It's not enough and we will surely run out within two or three days." mprothero@thenational.ae * Mitchell Prothero reported from the Gaza border; Ameera Ahmad is in Gaza City. With additional reporting by James Reinl at the United Nations

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