RAFAH, Gaza Strip – As Israel showed signs of scaling back its ground offensive in Gaza, its war from the skies continued Sunday, as an airstrike outside a U.N. school in southern Gaza killed at least 10 people. The bloodshed sparked some of the heaviest U.S. criticism of Israel since the war began.
Capt. Eytan Buchman, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said the targets of the attack in the border city of Rafah were three Palestinian militants riding past the school on a motorcycle.
We identified a successful hit on the target, Buchman said. We definitely don’t target civilians or schools.
But according to eyewitnesses and U.N. officials, an Israeli missile struck just outside the gates of the school. About 3,000 Palestinians were seeking refuge at the facility, and a crowd of civilians had gathered outside – children buying ice cream from a sidewalk vendor, and men and women buying food or cigarettes, witnesses said.
The missile hit the motorcycle, said the witnesses, and then crashed into the road. Shrapnel sliced into more than 40 people and killing at least seven civilians, including a boy. Presumably, the three militants Israel had targeted died, too.
There were bodies all over the ground, covered in blood, recalled Muhamed Yafei, 45, an air-conditioner repairman who had been staying inside the school. Among the dead, he said, was the ice-cream vendor.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Sunday’s attack a moral outrage and a criminal act. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, in an unusually harsh statement, said the United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling and urged Israel to do more to avoid civilian casualties and to protect U.N. facilities.
The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians, she added.
Sunday’s attack was the seventh on a U.N. school in the Gaza Strip in nearly a month of fighting.
Israel has not accepted responsibility for every assault, saying that some are under investigation or were caused by errant mortars or rockets fired by Hamas. U.N. officials have acknowledged discovering munitions in three of its schools since the conflict began.
Ashraf al-Kidra, a spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry, said at least 90 people were killed by Israeli strikes Saturday night and Sunday, mostly in Rafah. The Palestinian death toll in the conflict has risen to at least 1,806.
Sunday’s bloodshed came as Israel said it had withdrawn most of its ground forces from Gaza but would continue its military operation in the coastal strip.
Buchman, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, said Sunday that Israel believed it was no more than 24 hours away from destroying the last known Hamas tunnel, but he would not confirm whether Israel intended to pull all its forces out of Gaza once that had happened.
Israel said early today that it would observe a cease-fire for seven hours in most areas of Gaza to facilitate the flow of humanitarian goods. But Israel said the pause would not apply in Rafah.