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Israel strikes deeper into Gaza

Calls by Arab and European leaders for a cease-fire in the Gaza conflict intensified Tuesday in the aftermath of a mortar attack by Israeli forces on a United Nations school that killed at least 30 Palestinians who had sought shelter there.

Israeli officials, who said the school was targeted because Hamas militants had launched mortar rounds from its grounds, announced later in the day that they would establish a “humanitarian corridor” to transport vital supplies to Gaza Strip residents.

As raw video images of dead youngsters were beamed repeatedly throughout much of the globe, world political leaders reacted.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened a Security Council meeting saying, “Today’s events underscore the dangers inherent in the continuation and escalation of this conflict. I call once again for an immediate cease-fire.”

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted from Gaza in 2007 by Hamas, called the school deaths “a massacre” and urged intervention by the Security Council to protect Gazans from “genocide.”

Meanwhile, Hamas continued to fire rockets at civilian targets in southern Israel, one striking a town less than 20 miles south of Tel Aviv.

A truce proposal from Egypt, which had mediated a six-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that collapsed last month, calls for both sides to stop fighting for a limited period to allow humanitarian aid to be shipped into Gaza. Egypt would then lead talks with the two sides to make long-term border arrangements and lift an Israeli blockade of Gaza.

At the Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the Israeli humanitarian aid proposal but also pointed out the difficulty of distributing supplies. She said the U.S. would “actively work to relieve” any problems.

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Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev said her country was taking the Egyptian truce proposal “very seriously,” but she also made it clear that Israel was not interested in any Security Council action that was not backed up by force on the ground. “Does anyone here truly believe that Hamas will heed the words of this council?” she asked.

In Gaza on Tuesday, as Israeli forces continued to pound deeper into urban neighborhoods, the street battles and bloodshed showed no signs of ebbing. Palestinian medical officials reported that 75 Gazans were killed as Israeli forces swept into more densely populated areas.

John Ging, the senior U.N. official in Gaza, said 30 Palestinians died and 50 were injured when three artillery shells sprayed shrapnel through the Al Fakhoura School in the Jabaliya refugee camp. Palestinian doctors put the death toll at 37, including women and children.

Hours before, the United Nations said another of its schools in the Shati refugee camp, also in northern Gaza, which had been closed because of the bloodshed, was hit by an Israeli missile early Tuesday, killing three Palestinian cousins who had taken shelter inside.

Hundreds of Gazans have been relying on U.N. buildings as havens amid the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants that began 11 days ago when the Israelis initiated an air barrage designed to halt rocket attacks by Hamas on southern Israel.

The Israeli army said the school in Jabaliya was attacked after militants fired mortars from the campus. An army statement said Hamas “terror operatives” Imad Abu Askhar and Hassan Abu Askhar were among the dead.

“We face a very delicate situation where Hamas is using the citizens of Gaza as a protective vest,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu said.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Islamic militant group, denied that his organization was staging attacks from the school and accused Israel of carrying out “an open war on innocent civilians.”

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Israeli warships battered the coast as troops and tanks, after intense fighting around Gaza City, pushed south to Khan Yunis, where skirmishes continued throughout the day.

Thousands of Gazan families have abandoned their homes, either to flee the front lines of the conflict or because of their proximity to police stations or security forces installations. Those who don’t seek safety in public shelters, such as the U.N.-run schools, often shuffle between the homes of relatives.

But even many purely civilian neighborhoods aren’t safe because Gaza militants often fire rockets from such areas and Israel continues to bomb the homes of Hamas commanders and buildings and mosques it believes are used as weapons storehouses. As a result, almost every neighborhood in Gaza is littered with sites that Israel considers legitimate military targets.

The situation is perilous even for those seeking maternity care in Gaza’s overloaded hospitals. Pregnant women face the decision of whether to deliver at home or risk trying to reach a medical facility, where critically injured patients take priority. Gaza City’s main Shifa Hospital emptied its maternity ward on the first day of the Israeli air assault.

The Israeli offensive has failed to stop the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. And on Tuesday, a rocket exploded in the town of Gedera, about 25 miles northeast of Gaza. The strike, which injured a baby, was the farthest north yet by a Hamas rocket and the closest to the metropolis of Tel Aviv. That distance means that 1 million Israelis are within range of rockets fired from Gaza, said Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman.

Palestinian medical authorities, meanwhile, reported that shelling from Israeli ships killed at least 10 people and injured 20 others at the Deir al Balah refugee camp. Airstrikes on the Bureij refugee camp reportedly killed a man and his three sons, and in Zeitoun, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City, an airstrike reportedly killed 13 members of one family.

More than 600 Palestinians have reportedly been killed since Israel began its offensive Dec. 27, according to Gaza hospital authorities. The U.N. says about 25% of the victims have been civilians. Israel announced that another soldier was killed by a shell from one of its own tanks. So far, six Israeli soldiers, including four hit by “friendly fire,” have died, and four Israeli civilians have been killed by Hamas rockets.

“I want to tell the world’s leaders something: You are not to sleep, eat or drink until you stop the killing of innocent people in the Gaza Strip,” said Ging, the U.N. official, adding that 1 million Palestinians were without electricity and 700,000 without water. “There’s nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone is terrorized and traumatized.”

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In Washington, President-elect Barack Obama expressed concern about casualties on both sides but said he must defer to President Bush until his inauguration.

“In domestic policy, Democrats, Republicans -- we can have arguments back and forth about what tax policies are going to be,” Obama said. “When it comes to international affairs, other countries are looking to see who speaks for America. Right now President George Bush, as president of the United States, speaks on behalf of the U.S. government and the American people when it comes to international affairs.”

Arab foreign ministers and Abbas traveled to the United Nations to urge passage of a cease-fire resolution. Abbas, of the Fatah faction, has controlled only the West Bank since Hamas seized control of Gaza in mid-2007.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy traveled to Damascus on Tuesday to ask Syrian President Bashar Assad for help in ending the fighting. A Hamas delegation met in Cairo with Egyptian officials who have been trying to broker a peace deal.

Israeli says it has killed at least 130 militants in recent days and that the number of rockets fired out of Gaza has dropped considerably. At least 15 rockets were fired Tuesday, and the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas, announced that one of its suicide bombers had attacked an Israeli tank.

“We hope this fighting will be a swift episode,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. “We have no interest to endlessly drag it on.”

He said Israel did not expect the international community to be tolerant of the offensive, but added that “there is no other alternative -- and this is how things need to be done.”

Hospitals across Gaza remained overwhelmed, with dwindling supplies and patients stacked in crowded rooms. Doctors said equipment and medicine were being held up at border crossings from Egypt and Israel. Israel’s control of the roads and its bisecting of Gaza into fighting zones have made it increasingly difficult for severely wounded Palestinians to be transported outside the enclave for treatment.

“We’ve never seen so many cases in the operating room at once,” said Dr. Hassan Khalaf, director of Shifa Hospital. “Can you even imagine that we are conducting three and sometimes more operations in a single room at the same time? This is really catastrophic.”

Abdel Malik Jaber, director of Gaza’s telecommunications company, sent a text message alerting journalists that the company may no longer be able to power its generators. “If we don’t receive more fuel within 48 hours,” the message said, “the communications networks will completely stop.”

Tamer al Sultan said he and his 19-year-old brother, Hussein, had sought shelter in the Shati refugee camp school. He said an explosion struck shortly after midnight as Hussein and his two cousins were returning from the bathroom.

“It wasn’t really big, but it was enough to kill my brother and cousins,” Sultan said. “We fled our homes because of the airstrikes. We thought this place would be safe, but it seems there is no safe place in Gaza today.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Burai is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Geraldine Baum at the United Nations and Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem and special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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