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Israeli tank shells Gaza school; UN staff among 15 dead

JERUSALEM: At least 15 people have been killed, including a baby, after an Israeli shell struck a UN-run school in northern Gaza.

An official from the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, confirmed there were “multiple dead and injured” in the attack on a school in the city of Beit Hanoun. UN staff are also thought to be among the dead.

The facility was being used as a shelter by hundreds of Palestinians who had fled their homes since Israel began airstrikes two weeks ago, saying they were in retaliation for rocket attacks by Hamas fighters.

At least 150 people were injured in the blast - the fourth time a UN facility has been hit during the start of the recent conflict. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF), posting on its official Twitter feed, said Hamas had prevented people evacuating the area.

It wrote: “In recent days, Hamas has fired rockets from an area of Beit Hanoun where an UNRWA shelter is located. Last night, we told Red Cross to evacuate civilians from UNRWA’s shelter in Beit Hanoun btw 10am & 2pm. UNRWA & Red Cross got the message. Hamas prevented civilians from evacuating the area during the window that we gave them.

“Today Hamas continued firing from Beit Hanoun. The IDF responded by targeting the source of the fire. Also today, several rockets launched from Gaza toward Israel fell short and hit Beit Hanoun.”

But Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, said a window to allow civilians to leave was never granted. He told the AFP news agency, “We’ve spent much of the day trying to negotiate or to co-ordinate a window so that civilians, including our staff, could leave. That was never granted... and the consequences of that appear to be tragic.”

He added on his Twitter account that the precise co-ordinates of the school had been given to the Israeli military. Another UN official told AFP news agency they had tried to get people to leave the school shortly before the attack, fearing it might be a target.

He said, “We were talking to the shelter asking them to leave, as we feared it was a potential target.” Israel’s military said it had acted “against a terrorist target located in a populated area.”

Gaza Division Commander General Micky Edelstein said, “We use various technology, like radio or messaging to ask the population to leave. We need to investigate what happened here.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking in Cairo after meeting Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al Sisi, called on Hamas to accept a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel and Hamas to abide by international humanitarian law. He said, “Today’s attack underscores the imperative for the killing to stop - and to stop now. Many have been killed - including women and children, as well as UN staff.”

A spokesman for US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “We again urge all parties to redouble their efforts to protect civilians.” Last week, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency - the UNRWA - slammed militants after it discovered around 20 rockets were being kept in one of its schools.

Nearly 750 Palestinians have been killed in 17 days of fighting in Gaza. More than 140,000 people have fled the conflict. Some 32 Israeli soldiers have also been killed, and three civilians have died in Israel from rocket fire.