Israel strikes Gaza as troops start redeploying
Rafah - A United Nations school sheltering displaced people in the southern Gaza Strip was hit on Sunday by what a UN official said appeared to be an Israeli air strike that killed 10 people as the country signalled a possible scaling back in the ongoing war.
The Israeli military had no comment on the Rafah school strike, but confirmed it was redeploying along the Gaza border for a "new phase" of an operation aimed at stopping rocket fire toward Israel and destroying the Hamas underground tunnel network.
"We have indeed scaled down some of the presence and indeed urged Palestinians in certain neighbourhoods to come back to their homes," said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesperson.
Several Israeli tanks and other vehicles were seen leaving Gaza a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested troops would reassess operations after completing the demolition of Hamas tunnels under the border. Security officials said the tunnel mission was winding down and Israel would soon be taking its troops out of the strip.
In Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli air strikes and tank shelling continued. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 10 people were killed and 35 wounded after the strike near the boys' school in Rafah.
Robert Turner, the director of operations for the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said preliminary findings indicated the blast was an Israeli air strike near the school, which had been providing shelter for some 3 000 people. He said the strike killed at least one UN staffer.
"The locations of all these installations have been passed to the Israeli military multiple times," Turner said. "They know where these shelters are. How this continues to happen, I have no idea. I have no words for it. I don't understand it."
The Israeli military said they were investigating.
Inside the UN school's compound, several bodies, among them children, were strewn across the ground in puddles of blood.
"Our trust and our fate is only in the hands of God!" one woman cried.
Some of the wounded were transported to the Kuwaiti hospital in Rafah and others were treated in what seemed to be a makeshift clinic underneath a tent.
At least six UN facilities, including schools sheltering the displaced, have been struck by Israeli fire since the conflict began, drawing international condemnation. In each case Israel has said it was responding to militants launching rockets or other attacks from nearby.
In nearly four weeks of fighting, Palestinian health officials say more than 1 750 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed. Nearly 70 Israelis, almost all soldiers, have been killed.
Israel launched an aerial campaign in Gaza on 8 July to try to halt Palestinian rocket fire on major cities, and later sent in troops to dismantle Hamas' cross-border tunnels that have been used to carry out attacks.
Artillery shells slammed into two high-rise office buildings on Sunday in downtown Gaza City and large explosions could be heard seconds apart, police and witnesses said. Al-Kidra said more than 50 Palestinians were killed on Sunday, including 10 members of one family in a single strike in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel said it carried out 180 strikes on Sunday.
The bodies of the Al Ghoul family, killed early on Sunday morning, were lined up on the floor of the Kuwaiti hospital in Rafah. Doctors wiped dried blood from the faces of three men. Outside the hospital, men and children shed tears while sobbing women cradled the smallest of the dead, kissing their faces.
In another room at the hospital, at least four children were piled into an ice cream freezer, all wrapped in white cloth drenched in blood. Doctors say that morgues in Rafah are at maximum capacity.
In Cairo, Egyptian and Palestinian negotiators held talks over a potential cease-fire. After accusing Hamas of repeatedly violating humanitarian cease-fire arrangements, Israel said it would not attend the talks and there was "no point" negotiating with the Islamic militant group.
Hamas official Izzat al-Rishq said the Israelis will have to either withdraw unilaterally or accept a political agreement that addresses Hamas's demands.
"Hamas will not accept any ceasefire deal as long as Israelis are still in Gaza Strip," he said.
Hamas has said it will not stop fighting until Israel and Egypt lift their blockade of Gaza, imposed after the Islamic militant group overran the territory in 2007. Large swaths of Gaza have been destroyed and some 250 000 people have been forced to flee their homes since the war began.
In a televised address late on Saturday, Netanyahu warned Hamas they would pay an "intolerable price" if militants continued to fire rockets at Israel and that all options remain on the table.
From an Israeli perspective, the advantage of a unilateral pull-out or troop redeployment to the strip's fringes is that it can do so on its own terms, rather than becoming entangled in negotiations with Hamas. However, a unilateral pull-back does not address the underlying causes of cross-border tensions and carries the risk of a new flare-up of violence in the future.
Rocket fire continues toward Israel on Sunday. More than 3 000 rockets have been fired since the war began, which have killed three civilians and damaged several homes. Several soldiers have been killed in the current round of fighting by Palestinian gunmen who popped out of tunnels near Israeli communities along the Gaza border.
The Israeli military death toll rose to 64 after Israel announced that Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old infantry lieutenant feared captured in Gaza, was actually killed in battle. His funeral is later on Sunday.
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon revealed on his Facebook page on Sunday that he is a distant relative of Goldin and had known him his whole life. The information was previously kept under wraps while Goldin was feared to be abducted.
Israel had earlier said it feared Goldin had been captured by Hamas militants on Friday near Rafah in an ambush that shattered an internationally brokered cease-fire and was followed by heavy Israeli shelling that left dozens of Palestinians dead.