GAZA CITY — A United Nations school came under fire Thursday, killing at least 15 and wounding dozens more seeking shelter as clashes between the Israeli military and Hamas militants raged on the 17th day of the conflict.
The U.N. was attempting to arrange a humanitarian pause in the fighting to evacuate civilians from the U.N. school in the northern town of Beit Hanoun when it was hit.
"We were inside the school, hundreds of us. My daughters were in the courtyard of the school, then many explosions happened, smoke and debris ensued and then I saw my daughters covered with blood," said Um Yasser, whose two daughters were killed in the attack. "We thought this UNRWA school would be safe. But we were mistaken. I wish we stayed in our house since death is chasing us."
The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli shells hit the school. The Israeli military said it was reviewing the incident, and suggested Hamas-launched rockets may be responsible for the deaths, but provided little additional information.
"We can't confirm that this is a result of errant fire. In any case, we do not target U.N. facilities," said military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner. He said Israel had urged officials to evacuate the school three days earlier.
U.N. staff were among the casualties, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called on Hamas and Israel to respect "the sanctity of civilian life, the inviolability of U.N. premises."
"Today's attack underscores the imperative for the killing to stop — and to stop now," Ban said during a visit to Iraq.
The strike is the fourth time a U.N. facility has been hit during fighting between Israel and Hamas. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which handles refugees, previously said it had found militant rockets inside two vacant schools.
Condemning the violence, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel was targeting displaced people and "committing massacres."
Israel maintains it does all it can to prevent civilian casualties and that Hamas puts Palestinians in danger by hiding weapons in crowded civilian areas.
The deaths raised the number of Palestinians killed in the conflict to at least 788, most of them civilians, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says 32 of its soldiers have been killed since July 17, when it widened its air campaign into a full-scale ground operation aimed at halting rocket fire from Gaza and destroying a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels. Two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel have also been killed.
The violence ominously began to spread to the West Bank, where thousands of Palestinians protesting the Gaza fighting clashed with Israeli soldiers late Thursday in Qalandia, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. At least one Palestinian was killed and dozens were injured, the Associated Press reports, citing a Palestinian doctor.
The fresh violence came as the Israeli parliament swore in Reuven Rivlin as the country's new president, replacing Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres.
"We are not fighting against the Palestinian people, and we are not at war with Islam," Rivlin said in his speech at the handover ceremony. "We are fighting against terrorism."
More than 2,000 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza since July 8, and the Israeli military says it has uncovered more than 30 tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel, which Israel says Hamas uses to carry out terror attacks.
Despite the continued fighting, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration lifted a ban on commercial flights just before midnight Wednesday, but European airlines extended their cancellations through Thursday.
Meanwhile, the international community continued to step up efforts to negotiate a Israeli-Palestinian truce. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. chief Ban traveled to the region to meet with various Arab leaders.
Kerry spent time in Cairo to gather support among regional leaders for a cease-fire. A truce proposal brokered by the Egyptians last week failed because it did not contain a clause to lift the Israeli and Egyptian blockades on Gaza — a key Hamas demand — and the U.S.-designated terror group said it was not consulted on the terms of the deal.
"We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices," said Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal at a news conference in Qatar on Wednesday. "We will not accept anything but the end of the siege."
Israel imposed the blockade in 2006 after Hamas and other militants abducted an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid. It tightened the siege in 2007 after Hamas seized political power over Gaza from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but had eased some of the restrictions in recent years.
Egypt tightened its own restrictions last year after the overthrow of a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo, and has destroyed many of the cross-border smuggling tunnels that sustained Gaza's economy and which were also used by Hamas to bring in arms.
The attack on the U.N. school "underscores the need to end the violence and to achieve a sustainable cease-fire and enduring resolution to the crisis in Gaza as soon as possible," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
For Ahmed Meri of Gaza City, the international efforts aimed at stopping the violence are not enough.
"Where is the international community to see how we are being massacred?" Meri asked. "I was against Hamas but now I'm with any party that can avenge our deaths."
Michele Chabin reported from Jerusalem; Contributing: The Associated Press