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Gaza Death Toll Nears 800 as Israel Bombs UN School, Killing 17

Children injured in Israel's shelling of a UN school harboring refugees are rushed to a Gaza hospital. (Andolu Agency)

Children injured in Israel’s shelling of a UN school harboring refugees are rushed to a Gaza hospital. (Andolu Agency)

Nearly 800 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s 16-day war on Gaza. In one of the latest attacks, at least 17 people sheltering in a United Nations school in northern Gaza were killed by Israeli shelling.

Pools of blood and black blast marks stained the courtyard of the UN school in Beit Hanoun, where hundreds of terrified civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, believed they would be safe from the fierce fighting raging around them. They were not safe; despite warning the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that many civilians were sheltering at the school, Israeli tanks opened fire on it at around 2:50 p.m. on Thursday, Palestine’s Maan News Agency reports.

“We told the army several times to warn us because we know the school is located in a dangerous place,” a statement from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA) said. “We told them to give us enough time so we can evacuate women and UNWRA team, but they did not.”

“Precise coordinates of the UNWRA shelter in Beit Hanoun had been formally given to the Israeli army,” tweeted UNWRA spokesman Chris Gunness tweeted following the attack. “Over the course of the day, UNWRA tried to coordinate with the Israeli army a window for civilians to leave and it was never granted.”

A baby, children and two UN teachers were among the dead. At least 200 refugees were also injured in the shelling.

The attack brought back terrible memories of Israel’s bombing of two UN schools harboring hundreds of shell-shocked refugees during the 2008-2009 Cast Lead invasion of Gaza. More than 50 innocent civilians, including an entire family with seven young children, were killed. Many suffered horrific burns that caused agonizingly slow blistering deaths. After initially lying, Israel later admitted to using US-supplied white phosphorus, a chemical weapon banned for use against civilians, in the attack.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the Israeli attack.

“I am appalled by the news,” he said in a statement. “I strongly condemn this act.”

“Today’s attack underscores the imperative for the killing to stop —and stop now,” said Ban, adding that “all sides must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law to respect the sanctity of human life [and] the inviolability of UN premises.”

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it was reviewing the incident, Haaretz reports.

The shelling of the UNWRA school marked the fourth time in the past two days that Israeli forces have attacked schools in Gaza. On Tuesday, UNWRA announced that rockets had been found in one of its vacant schools for the second time.

“UNWRA strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible for this flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law,” the agency said in a statement.

The latest UNWRA school shelling victims were among at least 80 Palestinians killed throughout Gaza on Thursday as Israeli forces continued their ferocious land, air and sea war against Hamas. Maan News Agency reports 10 members of the al-Astal family, including three children, were killed in two separate Israeli attacks. Sixteen members of the family have been killed in the past week.

Five members of the Abu Aita family, including a young boy and a baby girl, were also killed in shelling in Jabaliya.

Late Thursday, Maan News Agency reported 2-year-old Ibrahim al-Sheikh Omar, a patient in the intensive care unit of the Muhammad al-Durra Hospital in Gaza City, was killed by shrapnel from an Israeli attack outside the building. Dozens more were reportedly wounded in the strike.

Thursday’s killings brought the Palestinian death toll to 784, 175 of them children, Al-Akhbar reports. More than 4,500 Palestinians have been wounded.

Three IDF paratroopers and two IDF officers were killed during fighting in Gaza on Wednesday, bringing the total number of Israeli deaths in the conflict to 32, Israel’s YNet reports. Two Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets and artillery from Gaza during the course of the 16-day war.

A farm worker from Thailand was also killed by a mortar fired from Gaza, prompting the Thai government to urge Israel to relocate some 4,000 Thais currently employed in southern Israel.

On Wednesday, Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant. Democracy Now reports more than 3,000 Gaza homes have been attacked during the war, as well as 46 schools, 56 mosques and seven hospitals. On Monday, Israeli forces shelled the al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza City, killing four people, including doctors, and wounding more than 70 others.

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday that Israel may be guilty of war crimes. Pillay cited Israel’s targeting of homes and hospitals in Gaza as evidence it has not done enough to protect civilians.

“There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,” said Pillay.

Pillay also condemned Hamas for “indiscriminate attacks” against Israel.

Israel, which has accused the Human Rights Council of anti-Israel bias, reacted angrily to Pillay’s remarks, the Jerusalem Post reports.

“Navi Pillay demonstrates once again her unfortunate lack of discernment in grasping real situations in real life,” Israeli Foreign Minister spokesman Yigal Palmor said. “She would be better advised to seek credible, first-hand information rather than making intolerably biased statements based on newspaper clippings. Her embarrassingly shallow and populist affirmations may pander to the more obscurantist members of the Human Rights Council but do a disservice to actual human rights.”

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni insisted Israel was acting in accordance with international law, under which Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its settler colonization of the West bank are considered illegal.

“It is regrettable civilians are killed, but when we call on them to vacate and Hamas calls on them to stay, then that is what happens,” said Livni, who accused the Human Rights Council of being “anti-Israel.”

On Thursday, the Human Rights Council voted 29-1, with 17 abstentions, to investigate potential Israeli war crimes in Gaza. The United States cast the lone dissenting vote.

“We will stand up for Israel… even if it means standing alone,” US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

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