Israeli mortar rounds blasted a United Nations-run school that had been converted into a refugee shelter for hundreds of Palestinians displaced by the ten-day war in Gaza, killing more than 40 people today.
It was one of three UN schools hit by Israeli ordnance today. The strike against the Fakhora school in the northern town of Jabaliya was the deadliest single attack of an already blood-soaked offensive.
Israeli army officials said that their forces had been targeted by Hamas mortar fire from within the school compound. They named two alleged Hamas militants among the fatalities, Imad Abu Askar and Hassan Abu Askar.
The Israeli army has instructions to attack any position used by Hamas for firing rockets, an Israeli military source told The Times.
The deaths came as the Islamists were pushed back from their usual launch grounds to the east and into the packed metropolis of Gaza City and the surrounding refugee camps.
They pile more pressure on the international community to come up with a swift but durable formula to halt the carnage that has left more than 640 Palestinians dead.
President Sarkozy of France, who is on a peace mission to the region, said that a deal to end Israel’s offensive in Gaza was not far away. Tony Blair, the international community’s envoy, said that a ceasefire could be reached within days but was contingent on finding a way to stop Hamas rearming. His hope that a truce could be struck was echoed by Gordon Brown, who said that the Middle East faced its “darkest moment yet”.
The increasing violence forced Barack Obama, the US President-elect, to break his silence on Gaza. He expressed his “deep concern” at the killing of civilians.
The Fakhora school had been sheltering refugees driven from their homes by heavy fighting.
Screaming relatives tried to revive victims who lay motionless in pools of blood on the pavement outside the school, as cars and ambulances rushed the casualties to Gaza’s already overwhelmed hospitals.
Palestinian medics said at least 42 bodies were pulled from the wreckage of the school that had been providing shelter for about 350 refugees. The UN said it had confirmed at least 30 people were dead and another 55 wounded.
John Ging, the Gaza director for the UN refugee agency, said that the building had been clearly marked with a UN flag and its precise co-ordinates given to the Israeli army to avoid just such a tragedy