OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Fifteen Palestinians were killed Thursday when an Israeli shell slammed into an UNRWA school where hundreds of civilians had taken refuge, pushing the death toll to 788.
The strike hit a school sheltering some of the 100,000 Palestinians driven out of 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 15 people had been killed and more than 200 injured in the school strike sending the Palestinian death toll from 17 days of fighting to 788.
In a statement about the attack UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said "We've spent much of the day trying to negotiate or to coordinate a window so that civilians, including our staff, could leave.”
"That was never granted... and the consequences of that appear to be tragic." Gunness said.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the deadly attack and said U.N. staff is attempting to arrange "a humanitarian pause in the hostilities so that civilians could be evacuated."
"Today's attack underscores the imperative for the killing to stop - and to stop now," Ban said.
Gaza's Health Ministry had issued a call earlier Thursday for international protection for civilians in the area, saying anyone leaving home was being targeted by Israeli fire.
Meanwhile in Cairo, US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to further regional efforts to broker an end to the bloodshed, reaching out to Turkey and Qatar, both allies of Hamas.
A U.S. official described any truce by the weekend as unlikely, as did an Israeli Security Cabinet minister who said the army would need one to two weeks to complete its main mission of razing tunnels used by Hamas for cross-border raids.
The Israeli military reported Thursday that it had destroyed more than 30 cross-border tunnels since it began the ground offensive last week.
Hamas has so far refused all cease-fire efforts, with its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal vowing late Wednesday there would be no end to the fighting without an end to Israel’s eight-year blockade on Gaza.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Amman Thursday for urgent talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II, the presidency said.
Meanwhile on the ground, at least 107 people were killed as Israel continued to strike Gaza, among them a family of six, including a 5-year-old girl and boy of 3.
Heavy fighting was reported along the border of central Gaza, according to Gaza police spokesman Ayman Batniji. Israeli troops fired tank shells that reached parts of the Bureij and Maghazi refugee camps. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Clashes also erupted between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, and the sound of explosions was audible across the town, Batniji said.
Israeli naval vessels, meanwhile, fired more than 100 shells along the coast of Gaza City and northern Gaza, the spokesman said. Rescue teams were prevented from operating in the area because of the heavy fire, he added.
The Red Cross said it had negotiated agreement with the two sides to take a convoy of 10 ambulances into the battered Khuzaa district, which has seen intensive fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants over the past 24 hours.
However, the Gaza Health Ministry accused Israel of blocking ambulances in Khuzaa, which lies on the Israeli border, close to the southern city of Khan Younes, in violation of international law. Al-Quds TV reported that Israeli forces had detained five wounded people from ambulances in Khuzaa.
The U.N. aid agency for Palestinians reported its first fatalities Thursday, with spokesman Chris Gunness saying that three UNRWA teachers were killed by "incoming fire."
The Qassam Brigades said Thursday morning that it had killed eight soldiers east of Sharq al-Toufah and destroyed an armored personnel carrier, according to Al-Quds TV. It also said one of its elite units attacked Israeli vehicles in the Kissufim region and blew up two, killing and wounding several, along with scoring a direct hit on a tank in Al-Maghazi.
Later Thursday the group claimed that an Israeli special unit was ambushed east of Shejaiya, four Israeli soldiers died and several others were wounded, according to the Quds News website. It was also reported that Qassam’s snipers hit two Israeli soldiers in Banat street north of Beit Hanoun.
Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks on Tel Aviv Thursday morning, after international airlines began resuming flights to Ben Gurion Airport under pressure from the Israeli government.
Israeli media reported at least eight rockets intercepted in multiple barrages over Tel Aviv. Two people suffered minor wounds during the attacks, according to Haaretz. Hamas' Al-Quds TV said the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades launched two rockets at Ben Gurion Airport.
The U.S. had lifted a flight ban to Israel earlier Thursday as Washington's top diplomat cited progress in ending 17 days of bloodshed in Gaza that has killed at least 788 Palestinians.
Hamas had hailed the suspension of Tel Aviv flights by U.S. and European airlines as a "great victory for the resistance."
The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said 81.5 percent of the dead were civilians, 24 percent of them children.
"We are gravely concerned by the ongoing heavy level of civilian causalities," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said at a press conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at which he also defended Israel’s right to self-defense in the face of a conflict triggered by Hamas rocket fire.
Netanyahu said Israel was doing everything it could to minimize casualties, pinning the blame on Hamas for its "grotesque (and) inhuman" use of civilians as human shields.
The weapons engineering unit in Gaza reported that around 10,000 tons of explosives fired on Gaza since the start of the Israel offensive, according to Quds News.
The Brazilian Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv late Wednesday, citing Israel's "disproportionate use of force" against Gaza and the mounting civilian casualties.