- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

UPDATED:

KIBBUTZ KFAR AZZA, Israel | Israel faced mounting pressure Tuesday for an immediate cease-fire after its army shelled a U.N.-run school in Gaza that sheltered Palestinian families fleeing a ground offensive against the territory’s Hamas rulers.

Reports of at least 40 civilian deaths stoked memories of similar strikes on a civilian target during Israel’s 2006 war in southern Lebanon, which turned international opinion decisively against Israel’s effort to crush another Islamist enemy - Hezbollah.

An Israeli army spokesman said Tuesday that a preliminary inquiry indicated the school in northern Gaza was being used by Hamas militants to fire mortars at Israeli troops. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing army rules.

“I doubt it will cause us to stop,” said Yossi Alpher, a former official in the Mossad spy agency and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“But it will definitely figure into the calculations of where we take the war,” said Mr. Alpher, now co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian journal Bitterlemons.org.

Early Wednesday, Israel announced it would set up a humanitarian corridor to ship supplies to Gaza.

Israel would halt attacks in predetermined areas where people could pick up supplies, to “prevent a humanitarian crisis,” said a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Israel previously denied that Gaza faced a humanitarian crisis.

After Tuesday’s attack on the school, a Western diplomat said people are “genuinely enraged” with Israel.

“Until now, Israel’s been given a considerable rope in the operation. That’s gotten much shorter,” said the diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The attack prompted President-elect Barack Obama to speak publicly for the first time on the war.

“The loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern for me,” Mr. Obama said in Washington.

Tuesday’s attack came on the 11th day of the war as Israel’s ground troops advanced into Gaza’s densely packed refugee camps and cities, where Hamas operatives typically intermingle with civilians.

The blue flag of the United Nations flew over the Asma school, where the walls of the toilets were covered in blood, according to a dispatch from the scene by Agence France-Presse.

About 450 people had taken refuge inside the school in the northern suburbs of Gaza City.

Among them were Rawhi, 21, Abed, 19, and Hussein Al-Sultan, 20, three cousins who fled there from their home in the town of Beit Lahiya.

“We thought that the U.N. flag would protect us, but as long as the Jews are here, death will follow us everywhere,” said Bahjat Sultan, a relative of one victim told Agence France-Presse as he held the hand of his 6-year-old son, Walid.

Ziyad Zayyad, 52, another witness to the attack, said, “The three boys went to get some water from the toilet taps outside when the attack took place. A couple of minutes later, we found them ripped to shreds.”

Asma was one of three schools hit Tuesday by Israeli forces, with a combined death toll of at least 45, Agence France-Presse quoted Gaza medics as saying.

The United Nations said it had given Israeli authorities Global Positioning System coordinates for 23 schools it operates in Gaza, most of which were packed with Palestinians fleeing their homes.

During the August 2006 war in Lebanon, the shelling of civilians in the southern Lebanese village of Qana shifted international sentiment against the Jewish state and closed the time window for battle. That war lasted 34 days.

More than 650 Palestinians have been killed in 11 days and nearly 3,000 wounded. Ten Israelis have died, including three civilians.

Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said, “Israeli forces had no knowledge of those present at the site; however, it is clear that it was not operating as a school.”

The army said two Hamas militants - Imad Abu Askar and Hasan Abu Askar - were among the dead.

Two neighborhood residents confirmed Israeli accounts, saying a group of militants fired mortars from a street near the school, then fled into a crowd of people in the streets. Israel then opened fire.

The residents, who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety, said the Abu Askar brothers were known low-level Hamas militants.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas refused to renew a six-month-old truce and began firing dozens of rockets daily at Israeli cities and towns.

About three dozen rockets were fired Tuesday, including one hitting 28 miles into Israel and slightly wounding a baby. The army said it was the deepest penetration yet inside Israel.

At the United Nations in New York, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a series of meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and foreign ministers from Muslim and European nations.

The U.S. is seeking a permanent halt to the fighting that meets three conditions: an end to Palestinian rocket fire at Israel, closure of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, and the opening of Israeli-controlled border crossings to supply the walled-off territory of 1.5 million.

Turkey is seeking a truce that international observers would monitor.

Karim Haggag, a spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are seeking a cease-fire of temporary but undetermined duration.

Mr. Mubarak also called for an urgent meeting of Israeli and Palestinian representatives to discuss how to reopen border crossings and lift the siege of Gaza in a more durable way. Mr. Haggag said that Egyptians would go to Israel to participate in such talks.

Mr. Sarkozy told reporters in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, that he spoke with Mr. Olmert to inform him of the initiative, the Associated Press reported.

“I have good hope that the reaction of Israeli authorities will allow us to imagine an end to the operation they have undertaken in Gaza, that is not only a cease-fire but a withdrawal,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

Israel’s U.N. envoy, Gabriela Shalev, said Tuesday that the Israelis were taking Egypt’s proposal “very seriously” but left open whether or not Israel would accept it, according to Reuters news agency.

Reuters, quoting an unnamed U.S. official Tuesday night, said the U.S. supported the Egyptian initiative.

Israel closed commercial crossings after Hamas seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.

Further restrictions of supplies since Israel began its offensive Dec. 27 have prompted warnings of a crisis as Gazans cope with electric blackouts and shortages of food, fuel and drinking water in near-freezing temperatures.

“The humanitarian situation there is dire, and we are working to try to address that in terms of getting goods in - into Gaza, as well as, once they are into Gaza, to the people who need them,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

• Betsy Pisik reported from the United Nations in New York.

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