GAZA CITY — An Israeli airstrike tore through a crowded shopping area Wednesday shortly after tank shells struck a United Nations-run school used by Gazans seeking refuge, officials said, as the violent conflict between Israel and Hamas militants reached its 23rd day.
Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said 16 people were killed and more than 150 wounded at the shopping area that was busy because residents thought a cease-fire was in place.
Israel had announced a four-hour humanitarian cease-fire in some areas of Gaza shortly after the school explosion. Al-Kidra said the school blast killed at least 17 people and wounded about 90. The Israeli military said mortar shells had been fired from near the school, and that its soldiers fired back.
The school explosion came hours after United Nations Relief and Works Agency reported it had determined that weapons had been stored in one of its Gaza schools. It's the third such discovery in two weeks. UNRWA condemned the use of the school for stashing weaponry, but added that the school was closed for the summer and was not being used as a shelter.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan condemned the shelling of the school and the use of schools to stash weapons. Israel claims that Hamas militants routinely use infrastructure such as mosques and schools to conceal weapons. Hamas says that Israel's military makes indiscriminate use of its overwhelming military power.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had no immediate comment on the shopping center attack, but did accuse Hamas of firing at least 26 rockets during the four-hour window.
IDF also said three Israeli soldiers were killed "during operational activity" in Gaza. Earlier, the Israeli military had said an "elite" IDF unit had uncovered a tunnel opening inside a house in the southern Gaza Strip. IDF said two explosive devices were detonated by terrorists, causing the residence to collapse and wounding several soldiers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel won't stop its offensive until all tunnels providing access into Israel have been destroyed. Polls show the Israeli offensive continues to hold wide support among Israelis.
"They want to kill us. We have no choice," said Jerusalem resident Gil Yair, 39, referring to Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. "They are holding a gun to our head and we have to take control of the situation."
Almost 60 Israelis, the vast majority soldiers, have been killed since fighting broke out July 8, the IDF says. More than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed, Gaza's Health Ministry says. UNRWA says the number of displaced people taking refuge in its shelters is approaching 10% of Gaza's population, with approximately 182,604 in 82 schools.
Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman UNRWA, said the U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp hit Wednesday contained hundreds of Palestinians displaced by the conflict who had sought shelter there from Israeli tank fire.
Fayez Abu Dayeh, the school's principal, said shells hit two classrooms and a bathroom. Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra corroborated that account. Six U.N. schools have now taken direct hits during recent Israeli bombardments, according to UNRWA.
Diplomatic efforts to reach a cease-fire have been unsuccessful. Hamas has said it will not agree to a truce unless its demands are met, including the lifting of a blockade on Gaza.
"Lifting the siege and reopening border crossings is a basic human right," said Abu Ali, from Gaza City. "Everyone who lives in Gaza will tell you we have had enough. It's time allow the people of this prison, Gaza, to have a normal life."
Tanya Java, 35, an architect in Tel Aviv, agreed with the Israeli military's operation.
"I didn't expect this war to drag on for the entire month," she said. "I wasn't expecting the ground troops to enter (Gaza) but I think it is essential to destroy the tunnels."
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Al-Helou reported from Gaza City, Conway from Tel Aviv and Bacon from McLean, Va. Contributing: Jennifer Collins in Berlin; the Associated Press