World leaders renewed calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza last night after an attack on a United Nations-run shelter killed at least 15 civilians and wounded more than 200.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said he was appalled by the incident, which claimed the lives of women, children and UN staff and pushed the Palestinian death toll from the two-week conflict over 750.
Tensions rose further last night when two Palestinians were killed in clashes at the Qalandia checkpoint in the West Bank.
The Israeli military said its troops had been fighting gunmen from Hamas in the area around the Gaza shelter and that it was investigating the incident. But as the day went on seemed clear that it was Israeli shells that hit the shelter.
The UN relief agency, whose schools in Gaza have been converted into shelters for tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes, said it had tried in vain to arrange an evacuation of civilians from the school with the Israeli army.
Witnesses in the Beit Hanoun district, where the attack occurred, described seeing pools of blood on the ground and on students’ desks in the courtyard of the school. Scores of crying families ran with their children to a hospital where the victims were being treated a few hundred metres away.
More than 140,000 Palestinians have fled 17 days of fighting, many of them seeking shelter in buildings run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa).
"It's clear that civilians are paying an unimaginable price caught between both sides," said Unrwa spokesman Chris Gunness. "There are reports of Hamas rockets falling around Beit Hanoun at the same time.
“We were attempting to arrange a window for evacuation for the civilians with the Israeli army that never came. The consequences were deeply tragic.”
‘Massive Israeli assault’
In a statement condemning the killings, Mr Ban expressed condolences to the families of innocent civilians “killed as a result of the massive Israeli assault” and called on
to “exercise particular care to avoid any attack on
premises where civilians have taken refuge”.
US secretary of state John Kerry said the incident "underscored the need" for a ceasefire and resolution of the conflict.
Efforts to achieve a truce showed no sign of a breakthrough, however. With Washington's encouragement, and the involvement of Turkey and Qatar, Egypt has been trying to broker a limited humanitarian ceasefire. Mr Kerry continued his talks with regional players yesterday, but neither Israel nor Hamas hinted at any shift in their positions.
Flights at Tel Aviv airport began to return to normal yesterday after US aviation authorities lifted a ban on commercial flights to and from the airport.
The Palestinian death toll in Gaza reached 755 yesterday, according to the local health ministry, the majority of them civilians. Israel has lost at least 32 soldiers. Palestinian rockets and mortar bombs have also killed three civilians in Israel.