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Israelis hit school in Gaza; 30 killed

Army says Hamas fired from grounds

By Ahmed Burai and Jeffrey Fleishman
Los Angeles Times / January 7, 2009
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GAZA CITY - Mortar rounds fired by Israeli forces exploded at a UN school yesterday, killing at least 30 Palestinians who had sought shelter there during a day when Israeli forces pounded deeper into the Gaza Strip and a Hamas rocket struck a town about 20 miles south of Tel Aviv.

Street battles rumbled across the Palestinian enclave and bloodshed showed no signs of ebbing, despite renewed calls by Arab and European leaders for the UN Security Council to demand a cease-fire. International pressure on Israel intensified after Palestinian medical officials reported that 75 Gazans were killed yesterday as Israeli forces swept into more densely populated areas. John Ging, the senior UN official in Gaza, said 30 Palestinians died and 50 were injured when three artillery shells sprayed shrapnel through the Al Fakhoura School in the Jabaliya refugee camp. Palestinian doctors put the death toll at 37, including women and children.

The Israeli army said the school in Jabaliya was targeted after militants launched mortar rounds from its grounds. An army statement said Hamas "terror operatives" Imad Abu Askhar and Hassan Abu Askhar were among the dead.

Two residents of the area who spoke by telephone said they saw a small group of militants firing mortar rounds from a street near the school, the Associated Press reported. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, the AP said. The residents said the two brothers were known to be low-level Hamas militants. They said a group of militants - one of them said four - were firing mortar shells from near the school.

"We face a very delicate situation where Hamas is using the citizens of Gaza as a protective vest," said Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Brigadier General Avi Benayahu.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied his organization was staging attacks from the school and accused Israel of carrying out "an open war on innocent civilians."

Hours before the strike on the school in Jabaliya, the UN said another of its schools in the Shati refugee camp in north Gaza, which had been closed due to the ongoing bloodshed, was hit by an Israeli missile early yesterday, killing three Palestinian cousins who had taken shelter inside. Hundreds of Gazans have been relying on UN buildings as safe havens against fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants that began 12 days ago when the Israelis initiated an air barrage designed to halt ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas on southern Israel.

Israeli warships battered the coast as troops and tanks, after intense fighting around Gaza City, pushed south to Khan Younis, where skirmishes continued through the day.

Thousands of Gazan families have abandoned their homes, fleeing the front lines of the conflict or because of their proximity to police stations or security forces installations. Those who don't seek safety in public shelters, like the UN-run schools, often shuffle between the homes of relatives.

But even many purely civilian neighborhoods aren't safe because Gaza militants often fire rockets from civilian neighborhoods, and Israel continues to bomb the homes of Hamas commanders and buildings and mosques it believes are used as weapons storehouses. As a result, almost every neighborhood in Gaza has sites that Israel considers legitimate military targets.

The situation is perilous even for those seeking maternity care in Gaza's overloaded hospitals. Pregnant women face the decision on whether to deliver at home or risk trying to reach a medical facility where critically injured patients take priority. Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital emptied its maternity ward on the first day of the air assault.

The Israeli offensive has failed to stop the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. And yesterday, a rocket exploded in the town of Gedera, about 25 miles northeast of Gaza and the closest the group has come to Tel Aviv. The strike, which injured a baby, was the farthest north yet by a Hamas rocket. That distance means that 1 million Israelis are within range of rockets fired from Gaza, said Mickey Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman.

Palestinian medical authorities, meanwhile, reported that shelling from Israeli ships killed at least 10 people and injured 20 others at the Deir Al-Balah refugee camp. Air strikes on the Al Burejj refugee camp killed a father and his three sons, and in Zeiton an air strike killed 13 members of one family.

About 600 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its offensive Dec. 27, according to Gaza hospital authorities. The UN says about 25 percent of the victims have been civilians. Israel announced another soldier was killed by one of its own tanks. So far, six Israeli soldiers, including four hit by friendly fire, have died and four Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets.

"I want to tell the world's leaders something: You are not to sleep, eat or drink until you stop the killing of innocent people in the Gaza Strip," said Ging, adding that 1 million Palestinians were without electricity and 700,000 were without water. "There's nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone is terrorized and traumatized."

In Washington, President-elect Barack Obama expressed concern about casualties on both sides but insisted that he must defer to President Bush until his inauguration.

"In domestic policy, Democrats, Republicans - we can have arguments back and forth about what tax policies are going to be," Obama said. "When it comes to international affairs, other countries are looking to see who speaks for America. Right now President George Bush, as president of the United States, speaks on behalf of the US government and the American people when it comes to international affairs."

Israel says it has killed at least 130 militants in recent days and that the number of rockets fired out of Gaza has dropped considerably. At least 15 rockets were fired yesterday.

"We hope this fighting will be a swift episode," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "We have no interest to endlessly drag it on, but only if two basic principles are reached we will be in a position to end it: The complete cessation of the (arms) smuggling and Hamas losing its ability to fire rockets. I have sworn not to allow our great nation to withstand any situation that will require the mercy of those who fire out the rockets."

He added that Israel expected that the international community would not be tolerant of the offensive but added that, "There is no other alternative - and this is how things need to be done."

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