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Mostly children among 15 killed in Israeli shelling of UN school Gaza toll 798

GAZA CITY, July 24, (Agencies): Fifteen Palestinians were killed Thursday when an Israeli shell slammed into a UN shelter where hundreds of civilians had taken refuge, sending the death toll in Gaza soaring to 798 despite world efforts to broker a ceasefire. The strike hit a UN school sheltering some of the 100,000 Palestinians driven from their homes in search of a safe haven after weeks of deadly fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants. The shell crashed down in the middle of the courtyard where people had set up camp, leaving the ground covered in bloodstains.

Gaza’s emergency services said at least 15 people had been killed and more than 200 wounded, sending the Palestinian death toll from 17 days of fighting to 798. UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said: “Many have been killed — including women and children, as well as UN staff.” He said he was “appalled” by the news and “strongly condemned” the attack which he said “underscores the imperative for the killing to stop — and to stop now”. Washington said it was “deeply saddened and concerned about the tragic incident”, without explicitly blaming its ally Israel for the shelling.
 
“We again urge all parties to redouble their efforts to protect civilians,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to negotiate a ceasefire. Kerry reached out to Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar on Thursday as he sought to further regional efforts to broker an end to the bloodshed. The US diplomat is seeking to garner support for an Egyptian-drafted proposal and an aide said he had spoken to his counterparts in Doha and Ankara in the hope they would use their influence to encourage Hamas to accept the plan.
 
Hamas has rejected the proposal so far, with its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal saying late Wednesday that there could be no halt to the fighting without an end to Israel’s eight-year blockade on Gaza first.
The Egyptian plan calls for a ceasefire first and talks afterwards on a long-term solution to Gaza’s problems. Speaking after a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Hamas should agree to the Egyptian ceasefire plan. “After that, we will discuss what would happen in the future,” he said.
 
There was no let-up to the violence in Gaza, however, with most of Thursday’s 93 victims killed in and around Khuzaa, a flashpoint area east of Khan Yunis which has been the site of intensive fighting since Tuesday. But the biggest single strike was at the school in the north, where the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said it had been trying to coordinate with the army over the evacuation of civilians, without success. Although UNRWA did not immediately give its own toll, spokesman Chris Gunness said there were “multiple dead and injured” after an Israeli tank shell hit a UN school being used as a shelter.
 
An AFP correspondent saw nine bodies, including that of a year-old baby and his mother at a nearby mortuary. “We’ve spent much of the day trying to negotiate or to coordinate a window so that civilians, including our staff, could leave,” Gunness said. “That was never granted ... and the consequences of that appear to be tragic.” But Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner cast doubt on whether the military was to blame, suggesting militants firing rockets near the school could have caused the deaths.
He also took issue with the claim that Israel had rejected a humanitarian truce around the school, saying it had implemented a four-hour window for evacuations.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has said more than 80 percent of the casualties so far have been civilians, and a quarter of them children, triggering growing international alarm over the civilian body count.
“As this campaign goes on and the civilian casualties in Gaza mount, Western public opinion is becoming more and more concerned and less and less sympathetic to Israel,” warned British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos expressed deep concern about the mounting civilian casualties, saying it was “almost impossible” for Palestinians to shelter from Israeli air strikes in the densely-populated territory.
“It doesn’t matter how hard Israel tries to minimise harm, this is an extremely overcrowded stretch of land,” she said.
Meanwhile, US airlines on Thursday lifted a two-day suspension of flights to Israel, but not all international airlines followed suit, with Germanmy’s Lufthansa extending its ban for a further 24 hours.
The ban was put in place on Tuesday after a rocket hit a house very close to the runways, with Hamas hailing the suspension of Tel Aviv flights as a “great victory”.
So far, 32 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have died in the fighting.
Far-right hawk Reuven Rivlin was sworn in as Israel’s 10th president on Thursday, replacing elder statesman Shimon Peres.
With the nation in mourning, the inauguration ceremony was scaled down, but Rivlin said it sent a “very clear message to our enemies: you have not overcome us and you will not do so”.
Meanwhile, Kuwait’s First Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah Thursday discussed with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Araby the latest developments on the Palestinian territories and the ongoing Israeli aggression on Gaza Strip.
Al-Araby said in a press statement that he discussed with Sheikh Sabah Khaled in a telephone conversation the current developments in Gaza Strip and possible ways to stop ongoing Israeli aggression on the Palestinian people.
He (Al-Araby) reiterated that Kuwait supports Egyptian efforts for stopping Israeli aggression, which has up to now left at least 788 Palestinians, most of whom are women and children, dead and about 4,000 others injured.
Elsewhere, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday Turkey would push for Israel to be tried at an international criminal court if it kept up its assault on Gaza and he accused the Jewish state of “spitting blood”.
Turkey, a member of the US-led NATO military alliance, was once Israel’s closest regional ally but has become one of its most vitriolic critics, with Erdogan last weekend accusing it of “surpassing Hitler in barbarism” with its Gaza offensive.
“If Israel continues with this attitude, it will definitely be tried at international courts,” Erdogan, who is campaigning for a presidential election on Aug 10, told a rally of supporters in the southern port city of Mersin.
“We will see this happen and Turkey will struggle for this,” he told the cheering crowd.
Turkey was once considered by Washington as a credible broker in the Middle East peace process, particularly given its channels of communication with Islamist group Hamas, but that changed as Erdogan adopted an increasingly anti-Israel stance.
“At the moment, Hamas is prepared for everything in order to achieve a ceasefire ... (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas is prepared too,” Erdogan told CNN news channel in an interview.
“Israel is not even approaching such a thing and is spitting death, spitting blood,” he said, in comments translated by the broadcaster from Turkish and aired on Thursday.
 
He stood by his comments likening Israel’s actions to those of Hitler and said the Jewish state was committing genocide. “It is beyond comprehension that Israel is still defended by the West and the world is silent about it. Therefore we cannot remain silent and we will not be silent,” Erdogan said. His rhetoric plays well with his electoral base of largely conservative Sunni Muslim voters, who he hopes will hand him victory in next month’s poll, the first time Turkey’s president will have been elected by a popular vote and not by parliament. There is widespread anger at the civilian casualties caused by Israel’s offensive against Gaza, which is aimed at stopping rockets being fired into Israel by militants loyal to Hamas.
 
On Thursday Israeli forces shelled a UN-run school sheltering Palestinians in the northern Gaza strip, the Gaza health ministry said, killing at least 15 people and raising the conflict’s death toll to nearly 788.
Israel, which says it has a right to defend itself, has lost at least 32 soldiers in clashes inside Gaza and with Hamas raiders who have slipped under the fortified frontier in tunnels. Palestinian rockets and mortar bombs have killed three civilians in Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said earlier on Thursday that Turkey was working with international partners to negotiate both a ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid. “The US, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt have been working for the last five days to ensure an immediate ceasefire,” he told Turkish broadcaster AHaber, adding that Ankara was in constant contact with Palestinian leaders.
 
Israel said last week it was reducing its diplomatic presence in Turkey after protesters pelted its consulate in Istanbul with stones and draped Palestinian flags on the ambassador’s residence in Ankara. The US State Department has called Erdogan’s previous remarks likening an Israeli MP to Hitler “offensive and wrong”. The New York-based American Jewish Congress said Erdogan had become the world’s “most virulent anti-Israeli leader” and demanded he return an award it gave him a decade ago, partly for his efforts to broker peace between Israel and Palestinians.

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