Israel under pressure as shell kills 30 in UN-run school

 

TWO SEPARATE incidents yesterday, on the 11th day of Israel's war in Gaza, left some 40 Palestinian civilians dead.

The horrific pictures of civilian dead and wounded, combined with mounting Israeli military casualties, could mark a turning point in Israel's operation in Gaza, making Israeli leaders less willing to pursue an extended campaign.

In the deadliest incident to date, at least 30 people were killed and 55 wounded when two Israeli mortar shells exploded outside a school in Jebaliya, north of Gaza city.

The school, run by the UN Relief and Works agency, was packed with families seeking shelter from neighbourhoods where fierce battles were still raging, or with families whose homes had been destroyed.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin strongly condemned the attack and another at a UN school in Shati that killed three Palestinians, saying the continuation of Israel's military assault on the territory cannot be justified and must be brought to an immediate end.

Mr Martin also rejected complaints by the Israeli ambassador to Ireland Zion Evrony that the Government 's stance on the crisis in Gaza is too critical of Israel. "Our position from the outset has been that we believe that the attack has been disproportionate and has caused an unacceptable level of civilian deaths and casualties," he said.

An initial Israeli army investigation said that Palestinian gunmen had directed mortar fire at troops from within the Jebaliya school compound. An Israeli military spokesman said Israeli forces fired back mortars and the Palestinian launching cell and a couple of senior Hamas militants were among those killed. Israel accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields.

Earlier nine members of one family were killed when an Israeli shell hit a building in Gaza city's Zaytoun neighbourhood. Among the dead were six children, aged 12 or under. "There's nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorised and traumatised," said John Ging, the top UN official in Gaza. He called on the international community to step up efforts to end the violence.

"I am appealing to political leaders here and in the region and the world to get their act together and stop this."

The war began to go wrong, from Israel's point of view, on Monday night, when a tank shell slammed into a group of Golani infantry troops in Gaza city, killing three of them, and wounding 20 others. In a separate friendly fire incident, another tank shell killed a paratroop officer. Israeli military casualties rose to six yesterday, when a soldier from the Combat Engineer Reconnaissance unit was killed in an exchange of fire with Hamas gunmen.

At least 610 Palestinians have been killed. Yesterday's attacks prompted US president-elect Barack Obama to break his silence on the offensive when he said the loss of life among civilians was "a source of deep concern" for him.

Israeli aircraft continued to pound targets across Gaza. Troops entered the strip's second largest city, Khan Younis, and special operations units operated at various locations, engaging militants.

Most of the fighting in Gaza is now in urban areas. The Israeli troops moved through the narrow alleyways in Gaza's sprawling population centres, moving from house to house, searching for militants.

The troops have been briefed to be on the look-out for booby-trapped cars, buildings and tunnels, and to make sure the militants do not succeed in kidnapping any soldiers.

Israel said last night it had agreed to set up a "humanitarian corridor" to ship vital supplies to the people of the Gaza Strip. The office of prime minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement that the humanitarian corridor idea came from the UN Security Council and he accepted it.