GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli artillery shells tore through the walls of a U.N. school crowded with sleeping war refugees and back-to-back explosions rocked a market filled with shoppers Wednesday as Israel's stepped-up campaign against Gaza's Hamas rulers claimed at least 116 Palestinian lives.
After the strikes near the shopping area in Gaza City, bodies lay scattered in the streets as the wounded screamed for help.
“Where is the ambulance?” one man moaned as he lay on the blood-soaked ground.
Some 3,300 Gazans seeking refuge from the fighting had been crammed into the U.N. school at the Jebaliya refugee camp when a series of Israeli artillery shells hit before daybreak, turning a classroom where families had been sleeping into a tragic scene of bloodied clothing, bedding and debris.
Palestinian health officials said at least 17 people were killed and 90 wounded in the school attack – the latest in a series of strikes the United Nations says has hit U.N. facilities that are supposed to be safe zones in the 23-day-old war.
“Where will we go next?” wailed 56-year-old Aishe Abu Darabeh, sitting dazed after the shelling.
Israel's military said no U.N. facility had been intentionally targeted during Wednesday's operation, but troops had responded to Hamas mortar fire directed at Israeli soldiers near the school.
However, the chief of the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees expressed “anger and indignation” at Israeli forces firing toward a U.N. facility even after being told 17 times, including just hours before the shelling attack, that it was filled with civilians.
“Enough is enough,” Pierre Kraehenbuehl told the AP, noting that six U.N. schools have been hit since the fighting began.
At least 116 Palestinians were killed Wednesday, including 16 in the shopping area, while the overall Palestinian death toll since July 8 climbed to 1,361, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra.
The Israeli military said three of its soldiers were killed when a booby-trapped house collapsed after they identified an entrance to a Hamas tunnel inside. In all, 56 soldiers have been killed, as well as two Israeli civilians and a Thai citizen. Wednesday marked a second day of particularly heavy Israeli air and artillery attacks, at a time when Egyptian cease-fire efforts appeared to be stalling.
Israeli officials have accused Hamas of using Gaza's civilians as human shields by firing rockets from crowded neighborhoods and putting them at risk in the event of an Israeli counterstrike.
However, Kraehenbuehl, the U.N. official, said Israel must try harder to ensure that civilians are not hurt, especially in Gaza where 1.7 million people are squeezed into a small coastal territory. His agency has opened 80 of its schools to more than 200,000 Gazans fleeing the violence.
“What maybe the world forgets ... is that the people of Gaza have nowhere to go,” he said. “So when the fighting starts and they move, it is not as if they can cross a border to somewhere.”
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, called Wednesday's deaths at the U.N. school “tragic,” but blamed “Hamas's criminal entrenchment within civilian populations and its frenzy to wage war within civilian establishments.”
Hours later, Israeli artillery fire hit a crowded shopping area in the Shijaiyah district in Gaza City, killing 16 people and wounding more than 200 others, Gaza health officials said.
“People were in the street and in the market, mostly women and kids. Suddenly more than 10 shells landed,” said Salim Qadoum, 26, who witnessed the strike.
“The area now is like a blood bath, everyone is wounded or killed. People lost their limbs and were screaming for help. It's a massacre. I vomited when I saw what happened.”
The Obama administration condemned the deadly shelling Wednesday, using tough, yet carefully worded language that reflects growing White House irritation with Israel and the mounting civilian casualties.
The U.S. frustrations were compounded by a flurry of Israeli media reports this week that appeared aimed at discrediting President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent days trying to negotiate an unsuccessful cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
In unusually blunt language, a State Department spokeswoman on Wednesday repeatedly described one of the reports as “complete crap.”
While Obama and other top officials consistently state their support for Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas rocket fire, the White House has been making increasingly strong statements about the Palestinian civilians dying in Israeli attacks. Officials have also directly called on Israel to do more to prevent the casualties.
“We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN designated shelters in Gaza,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council.
She also condemned “those responsible for hiding weapons in the United Nations facilities in Gaza” – a nod to Israel's charge that Hamas is housing arms in those facilities.