Israel was on Wednesday observing a four-hour lull in Gaza several hours after a deadly strike on a school killed 16, drawing a furious response from a UN refugee agency. The humanitarian window went into effect at 1200 GMT, although the Israeli army said it would not apply to areas where troops were “currently operating” in a move Hamas dismissed as a publicity stunt with “no value”.
The announcement came several hours after troops made a “significant advance” into the narrow coastal strip as the security cabinet met in Tel Aviv to discuss an Egyptian proposal for a longer ceasefire, army radio reported.
The temporary truce deal came into force just hours after two Israel shells slammed into a UN school in the northern Gaza Strip where more than 3,000 people had sought shelter, killing at least 16 of them.
It was the second time in a week that a UN school had been hit, hiking the death toll in Gaza from 23 days of bloodshed to 1,306 and drawing a furious denunciation from the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces,” said UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl, saying the school’s location had been communicated to the Israeli army 17 times.
“No words to adequately express my anger and indignation,” he wrote on his official Twitter account, saying that 3,300 people had been sheltering there at the time.
“I call on the international community to take deliberate international political action to put an immediate end to the continuing carnage,” he said.
Violence in Gaza claimed at least 76 lives on Wednesday, with the worst strike at the school in the Jabaliya refugee camp. UN figures show up to 240,000 people have fled their homes in a territory which is home to 1.7 million Palestinians, leaving one in seven homeless.
Most have sought refuge in more than 80 UN schools, although the agency has twice reported finding rockets stashed in two of its uninhabited schools.
Inside the Jabaliya school yard, several horses and donkeys lay dead in pools of blood as other terrified animals cowered nearby. Facing onto the yard was a classroom whose wall had been completely destroyed.
Inside, two young men wearing Palestinian boy scout scarves were engaged in the grisly task of collecting body parts. Their ungloved hands were completely stained with blood as they picked up chunks of flesh and put them into thin plastic bags.
“They’re bombing houses, homes, schools — there’s no protection,” said Moin al-Athamna, one of those staying at the school, saying everyone had been sleeping when the first shell hit.
“They were all kids in there, young people,” said Hisham al-Masri. “Why would they do this? Where can people go?”
An AFP correspondent said the army had been pounding the area with tank fire for an hour prior to the incident. International efforts to broker an end to the bloody conflict have so far led nowhere, with current efforts focused on a top-level Palestinian delegation, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, which was expected to visit Cairo in the coming days to discuss a new truce proposal.
Israel’s security cabinet was also locked in discussions over an Egyptian truce initiative, army radio said several hours after reporting that troops had made a “significant advance” into Gaza.
On Tuesday, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said it had garnered Hamas support for a 24-hour truce which would be discussed in Cairo.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had been in touch with exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on Monday and Tuesday and had proposed the 24-hour truce, senior official Nabil Shaath told AFP, saying the Hamas chief had “agreed”.
But a Hamas spokesman denied agreeing to any new truce, saying they first wanted “an Israeli commitment” and its military chief Mohammed Deif said there would be no ceasefire without Israel lifting its eight-year blockade on Gaza.
The Gaza death toll continued to rise with Wednesday’s death toll hitting 76, and the overall number of people killed since July 8 now standing at more than 1,306. On the Israeli side, the conflict has cost the lives of 53 soldiers, all killed since the ground operation began, as well as two civilians and a Thai worker killed by rocket fire.
As the violence raged on, influential British band Massive Attack dedicated their only Middle East gig to the children of Gaza, issuing a rare, explicit condemnation of the Israeli offensive.
“This bombardment of an area that is one of the most densely populated on earth, where civilians aren’t allowed to leave, is just beyond belief,” frontman Robert Del Naja told AFP in Lebanon in an interview.
“In order to protect yourself, do you really want to massacre another people?” he said in a question directed at Israel.