Scenes of war and heartbreak as Israel-Hamas conflict intensifies
Fifteen Palestinians were killed and 90 wounded Wednesday when Israeli shells hit a crowded U.N. school sheltering thousands of Gaza refugees, the latest in a series of U.N. compounds to come under attack on the 23rd day of hostilities between Israel and Hamas.
The Israeli military said that militants had fired mortar shells at Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers from the vicinity of the school in Jabalya, and that the soldiers “responded towards the source of fire.” The military said it was reviewing the incident.
Hours after the strike, hundreds of dazed people still crowded the school courtyard, according to NBC News, the latest victims of an increasingly bloody conflict that has blurred the lines between civilian and military targets. Christopher Gunness, the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which operated the shelter, told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that the U.N. agency had “notified the Israeli army of the exact position of this school … 17 times.”
“We’ve got over 200,000 people in 83 shelters – they’re overflowing,” Gunness said from Jerusalem, describing a growing humanitarian crisis. “We will soon have a situation where tens of thousands of people, if they continue to leave their homes, in the streets of Gaza without food, without water, without shelter.”
The death toll in Gaza now tops 1,259, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, with more than 7,100 wounded. On the Israeli side, 53 soldiers and three civilians have been killed since the beginning of military operations. The latest violence comes amid an intensifying Israeli air and military assault on Gaza, which began on July 8 in response to rocket fire from Hamas militants aimed at Israeli cities. Tuesday marked the deadliest day so far, with 153 Palestinians killed.
A four-hour “humanitarian window” announced Wednesday by the Israeli military was immediately rejected by Hamas, which said the brief cease-fire was a media ploy. The unilateral suspension of hostilities in Gaza did not include areas where IDF soldiers were already operation or areas along the border with Israel.
Israeli forces have been on high alert in recent days as growing violence and protests have spread to the occupied West Bank, where clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers turned deadly last week. The protests, which came on the heels of a march last Thursday night that involved at least 10,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, were part of a planned “day of rage” over the escalating conflict in Gaza.
The scale of the Palestinian protests, the largest in nearly a decade, has raised fears that the unrest could escalate into a third intifada, or uprising.
President Obama has repeatedly called for an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East, as Israel and Hamas continue to trade accusations over what are legitimate targets and who is to blame for mounting civilian casualties in Gaza. But negotiations have broken down in recent days as both Hamas and Israel rejected multiple opportunities to halt the bloodshed.
The Obama administration was left fuming on Monday after Israeli politicians railed against the terms of an alleged cease-fire proposal by Secretary of State John Kerry, which senior officials in Jerusalem labeled a “strategic terrorist attack,” according to Haaretz.
Although Obama and Kerry continue to voice support for Israel’s right to defend itself, tensions are growing between Washington and Jerusalem with U.S. officials increasingly worried about the mounting death toll in Gaza. Public opinion in Europe has turned markedly against Israel since the conflict with Hamas began earlier this month. On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned that its longtime ally was “undermining” support from the West with its aggressive tactics, telling BBC radio that Europeans were “rapidly turning against” Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has told Israelis to prepare for a “prolonged” war with Hamas.
“There is no war more just than this,” Netanyahu said Monday in a televised speech. “We will continue to act aggressively and responsibly until the mission is completed to protect our citizens, soldiers and children.”
The Gaza Strip, a Palestinian region on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea and adjacent to Egypt, is just 139 square miles and home to 1.8 million people, about half of them children under the age of 18. It is one of the poorest and most dense regions in the world. It is run by Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that controls a majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament.
Civilian deaths in Gaza have surged in recent weeks as the Israeli military offensive known as “Protective Edge” has expanded operations in the Palestinian enclave, including a ground invasion to destroy tunnels used by Hamas to move supplies and launch attacks on Israel. The Israeli military campaign was launched after 10 days of aerial strikes failed to halt rocket attacks on Israeli cities from Gaza.
The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates that one in three casualties in the conflict so far have been children.
Hostilities between Israel and Hamas flared up last month with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens by Palestinian militants. In what appears to have been an act of retribution, a group of Israeli Jews then kidnapped and killed a Palestinian boy, who police said was burned alive. Suspects are in custody.