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Israeli tank fire kills 42 at UN school

Israeli tank shells killed more than 40 Palestinians on Tuesday at a UN school where civilians had taken shelter...

Written by Agencies | Gaza |
January 7, 2009 12:48:51 am

Israeli tank shells killed more than 40 Palestinians on Tuesday at a UN school where civilians had taken shelter,in carnage likely to boost international pressure on Israel to halt a Gaza offensive. An Israeli army spokeswoman said she was looking into information on the incident at al-Fakhora school in Jabalya refugee camp,on the fourth day of a ground assault launched after a week of air strikes failed to end Hamas rocket salvoes.

People cut down by shrapnel lay in pools of blood in the street. Witnesses said two Israeli tanks shells exploded outside the school,killing at least 42 civilians and wounding dozens — Palestinians who had taken refuge there and residents of nearby buildings.

A UN official in Gaza said 350 people had been sheltering at the school and the UN regularly gave the Israeli army exact geographical coordinates of its facilities to try to keep them safe from attack.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni,asked by reporters about the deaths,said she was not familiar with the incident. “Unfortunately,(Hamas fighters) are hiding amongst civilians,” she said,adding that Israel was trying to avoid civilian casualties. But an Israeli official said “hostile fire” was directed at the soldiers from within the school. He said soldiers returned fire and multiple explosions went off,presumably emanating from munitions stored there. The official spoke on condition of anonymity pending an army announcement.

In a separate attack earlier in the day,three Palestinians were killed in an air strike on another school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The deaths in Gaza,home to 1.5 million people,raised to 77 the number of Palestinian civilians killed on Tuesday alone,according to medical officials. The spike in civilian casualties could prove to be a turning point in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead,launched on December 27 with the declared aim of removing the Hamas rocket threat.

In Washington,State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the US would like an immediate ceasefire but one that is sustainable and not time-limited — comments that stopped short of a formal demand for a truce now. International efforts are under way to end the fighting have focused on securing a deal that would meet Israel’s demand that Hamas,an Islamist group in charge of the Gaza Strip,could not rearm once hostilities end. “If there is an end to terror,an end to the smuggling of ammunition from Sinai to Gaza,the Israeli fighting will stop,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said,referring to rockets and other weaponry Hamas obtains through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

In fighting on Tuesday,Israeli forces pushed into the southern town of Khan Younis and battled Hamas militants on the outskirts of the city of Gaza. Palestinian medical officials said four militants were killed. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip,at least 631 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,700 wounded since Israel began its offensive.

Ten Israelis,including three civilians hit by rocket fire,have been killed in the conflict. At least five rockets landed in Israel on Tuesday,including one that hit the town of Gadera,28 km (17 miles) from Tel Aviv. A three-year-old girl was wounded.

A senior Israeli official said French President Nicolas Sarkozy,on a Middle East visit and in partnership with Egypt,was pursuing a serious initiative for a ceasefire. Commenting on the deaths at Jabalya school,Sarkozy said during a visit to French UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon: “It reinforces my determination for all this to stop as quickly as possible. Time is working against us. We must find a solution.”

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