Once again, a place of refuge proved a deathtrap.
At least two explosions rocked a boys’ school in the southern Gaza city of Rafah that had been designated as a United Nations shelter for Gazans fleeing days of fighting. Palestinian officials said at least 10 people were killed and about three dozen injured in blasts at the gates of the compound.
The Israeli military said it was investigating the incident, the latest of at least half a dozen deadly strikes on or near U.N. facilities in Gaza during nearly four weeks of fighting. Israel has acknowledged accidentally bombarding one school where people were sheltering, but has blamed other strikes on errant Palestinian rocket fire or said its troops were hitting back at a source of fire from suspected Hamas fighters.
“This madness must stop,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has taken part in failed mediation efforts, said in a statement. However, he did not assign blame for the attack.
A strongly worded U.S. statement appeared to suggest Israel was to blame for shelling near the school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.
“The United States is appalled by today's disgraceful shelling outside a 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.
“We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties,” she said.
The State Department comments were among the strongest to date criticizing Israel for the rising civilian death toll. In previous statements, the Obama administration had been careful to avoid assigning blame and frequently focused on Israel's right to respond to Hamas rockets.
The stronger rhetoric may reflect a growing U.S. frustration with the reluctance by both sides to resolve the conflict.
Last week, after Hamas was blamed for breaking a cease-fire agreement and killing three Israeli soldiers, the U.S. called the attack an “outrageous violation.”
With the latest deaths, the overall Palestinian death toll was closing in on 1,800, most of them said to be civilians — a figure surpassing the total combined deaths in Israel’s two previous Gaza offensives over the last five years. At least 64 Israeli troops have been killed, Israel’s biggest wartime losses since a monthlong war in Lebanon eight years ago.
Israeli officials suggested that the ground operation in the Gaza Strip, focused on destroying Palestinian militants’ “attack tunnels” and rocket-launching capabilities, was winding down, but they emphasized that all options remained open.
“In the next 24 hours we will continue ongoing activities and redeployment of some of our forces” in Gaza, Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner said during a news briefing. He said the military was “extremely close” to achieving its aims, but that “the reality on the ground can take us either way.”
Witnesses in Rafah, a bedraggled town on the Egyptian border that has been the scene of intense battles since Friday, described a chaotic scene after explosions hit Palestinians lined up for much-needed supplies outside the school. The facility was used as a U.N. shelter, and thousands of displaced people were taking refuge there. Some inside the grounds were hurt as well, medics said.
Children were among the dead and injured, witnesses and officials said. Television video showed overwhelmed medical personnel cradling limp, blood-soaked bundles, able to offer only rudimentary open-air treatment to some of the wounded. Palestinian women wailed and slapped their faces in grief.
“Blood was mixing with spilled water, like a waterfall,” said Aboud Nijem, who lives close to the site of the explosions.
Palestinians said the death toll in Rafah was expected to rise as bodies were dug from the rubble of battles of recent days. The town and its environs have been pummeled by Israeli airstrikes since militant fighters emerged from a tunnel on Friday morning, ambushing and killing two Israeli soldiers.
A third, 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, had been feared captured. But early Sunday, the Israeli military said that based on evidence gathered from the scene, he had been declared dead. His funeral Sunday drew thousands of Israeli mourners.
He was eulogized by his father, a Tel Aviv University professor; his twin brother, also serving in the army; and his fiancee. “I so wanted to be your bride,” she said through tears. Three other Israeli soldiers were buried Sunday afternoon as well.
Israel’s minister of defense, Moshe Yaalon, also revealed a familial tie to Goldin, which was withheld while the soldier was missing but not yet declared dead. Yaalon’s grandfather was brother to Goldin’s great-grandmother, he said on Twitter, and he had known the lieutenant since he was a child.
On the periphery of the Gaza Strip, Israel withdrew more ground troops and repositioned others, even while continuing fierce bombardment of what it described as militant targets — more than 100 strikes in the 24 hours ending Sunday morning.
Hamas has painted the Israeli pullback that has taken place so far as a victory, and spokesman Sami abu Zuhri vowed that Israel would suffer whether or not its troops remained in Gaza.
Successive international efforts to negotiate a cease-fire have failed, with the latest truce effort collapsing Friday. Egypt invited international mediators and other parties for another round of talks, but the combatants — Israel and Hamas — were absent.
Times staff writer King reported from Gaza City and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem. Staff writer Edmund Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.