GAZA/WASHINGTON: The U.S. declared Sunday it was “appalled” by the “disgraceful” shelling by Israel of a U.N. school sheltering some 3,000 displaced Palestinians in southern Gaza as some troops began pulling back from the coastal enclave in a step toward unilateral withdrawal.
In one of the most strongly worded statements yet from Washington since the conflict began nearly a month ago, the U.S. denounced the attack that killed 10 people earlier in the day, noting that the school had been designated a protected location.
It was the second strike on a school in less than a week.
“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which at least 10 more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
“The coordinates of the school, like all U.N. facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israel Defense Forces,” Psaki said in the statement. “We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”
The U.S. condemnation followed one by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who depicted the shelling near the Rafah school as both “a moral outrage and a criminal act.”
Israel’s military confirmed it had fired on a target “in the vicinity” of the school.
“The IDF targeted three PIJ [Islamic Jihad] terrorists on board a motorcycle in the vicinity of an UNRWA school in Rafah,” an army statement said.
“The IDF is reviewing the consequences of this strike.”
Islamic Jihad did not report any of its militants killed or injured in the incident. A Palestinian health official said all those wounded or killed were from inside the school.
The shelling came as Palestinian factions gathered for truce talks in Cairo and world powers voiced increasingly urgent calls for both sides to cease fire. Israel’s security Cabinet decided not to send a representative to the meetings.
The Palestinians meeting in Cairo want “a cease-fire; Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza; the end of the siege of Gaza and opening its border crossings,” said Maher al-Taher, a member of the delegation.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond demanded an unconditional cease-fire to resolve the “intolerable” situation for civilians.
And China’s top diplomat Wang Yi demanded both sides in the conflict which erupted on July 8 “immediately” halt their fire.But there was little respite on the ground, where more than 71 people were killed in Rafah alone as more bloodshed sent the death toll soaring over 1,800.
At the school, an AFP correspondent witnessed scenes of chaos, as adults sprinted frantically away through pools of blood, young children clutched in their arms.
With hospitals and clinics under increasing pressure, Gaza’s medical services have reached the brink of collapse, the U.N. warned.
Rafah’s main Najjar hospital is closed after being hit and only two clinics were functioning, with medics rapidly running out of space.
In one, an AFP correspondent saw the bodies of four small children packed into an ice cream freezer.
An Israeli airstrike on northern Gaza also killed at least seven people and wounded 15, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
Israel withdrew some of its ground troops from Gaza Sunday in an apparent winding down of the nearly monthlong operation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Saturday: “I don’t plan on saying when we’ll finish, we have no obligations apart from our security interests,” he said in a speech seen as being the harbinger of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.
Earlier Sunday, the army confirmed it had begun withdrawing some troops from Gaza. “We are removing some [forces],” Lt. Colonel Peter Lerner told AFP, saying troops were “extremely close” to completing a mission to destroy a network of attack tunnels.
“We are redeploying within the Gaza Strip, taking out other positions,” he added, indicating the military was “changing gear.”
Witnesses Saturday had reported seeing troops leave Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra in the north as well as from villages east of Khan Younes in the south.
AFP correspondents Sunday reported around 100 tanks gathering in the border area outside Gaza where they had not been before, having just pulled out, while others were seen driving away from the border.
Meanwhile, Israel said that a soldier believed snatched by militants in Gaza on Aug. 1 was dead. Analysis of remains found in a tunnel near Rafah showed that they contained the DNA of 23-year-old Lt. Hadar Goldin, the army said.
His suspected kidnapping had triggered a brutal Israeli assault on Rafah and the surrounding area which medics said killed more than 200 people in just 26 hours.
Hamas’ armed wing the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades acknowledged its militants had staged an ambush in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed, but denied holding Goldin.