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US condemns school shelling as Israel calls up 16,000 more reservists

Photo: AFP/Jack Guez | Israeli soldiers camouflage their faces at an army staging area along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip

Israel mobilised 16,000 more army reservists Thursday to bolster operations against militants in Gaza as the US said there was little doubt that Israeli artillery was behind the shelling of a UN school this week, calling it "indefensible".


"The army has issued 16,000 additional mobilisation orders to allow troops on the ground to rest," an army spokeswoman said.

Israel has now mobilised a total of 86,000 reservists for its Gaza campaign, launched on July 8 to try to end rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups in the Palestinian enclave.

The move came as the White House said there was little doubt that Israeli artillery was responsible for a strike on a UN school in Gaza on Wednesday, describing the shelling as “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible”.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest cited statements from the UN saying Israel was behind the shelling, as well as the Israeli government’s acknowledgement that it was firing in the area of the school.

Earnest said that while the US supports a full investigation into the matter, “it does not appear there’s a lot of doubt about whose artillery was involved”.

An initial Israeli aerial campaign was widened into a ground offensive on July 17. Since then the campaign has concentrated on destroying more than 30 cross-border tunnels that militants have constructed to carry out attacks on Israeli territory.

Israel says that most of the 32 tunnels it has uncovered have now been demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few days.

Israel vowed Thursday that it would not pull troops out of Gaza until they finish destroying the tunnels, despite sharp international criticism over the Palestinian death toll.

Speaking at a special cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not accept any ceasefire that did not allow troops to continue destroying tunnels used by militants to attack Israel.

"Until now, we have destroyed dozens of terror tunnels and we are determined to finish this mission -- with or without a ceasefire," he said at the start of the meeting.

"So I will not accept any [truce] proposal that does not allow the [military] to complete this work for the security of Israel's citizens."

School shelling ‘violated international law’

Wednesday saw one of the heaviest days of fighting yet as well as the shelling of the UN school, which drew condemnation from the international community.

Some 3,300 Palestinians, including many women and children, were taking refuge in the school in Jabalya refugee camp when it came under fire around dawn, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said.

The Gaza Health Ministry put the number of dead in the school attack at 15, with more than 100 wounded. The United Nations said 16 people were killed.

It was the second time in a week that a school run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees was hit, prompting a blistering attack on Israel by UNRWA Commissioner General Pierre Krahenbuhl.

"I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces," he said, indicating the school's location had been communicated to the Israeli army 17 times.

"No words to adequately express my anger and indignation," he wrote on his official Twitter account, describing it as "intolerable".

"This morning a UN school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families suffered a reprehensible attack," UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday on a visit to Costa Rica.

"It is unjustifiable, and demands accountability and justice."

Israel will carry out an investigation into the shelling of the school, government spokesman Mark Regev told the BBC on Thursday.

“We will investigate that. And if we find that it was errant fire from Israel I'm sure we will apologise,” he said.

"It's not clear to us that it was our fire but we know for a fact there was hostile fire on our people from the vicinity of the school."

Israel has said its forces were attacked by guerrillas near the school and had fired back.

Hours after the school attack, another 17 people were killed in a strike on a market in Shejaiya, near Gaza City. It came as parts of Gaza were under a four-hour Israeli military ceasefire, though Israel had said its truce would not apply in places were troops were "currently operating".

Altogether, a total of 116 Palestinians were killed in the day’s fighting.

US to send ammunition to Israel

Washington also denounced the school attack, in a carefully worded statement that avoided mentioning Israel.

"The United States condemns the shelling of a UNRWA school in Gaza, which reportedly killed and injured innocent Palestinians, including children, and UN humanitarian workers," a statement said.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon later said it had granted a request from Israel to supply it with extra ammunition, including some from a stockpile stored by the US military on the ground in Israel for emergency use by the Jewish state.

Rights group Amnesty International had urged Washington to halt arms supplies to Israel.

"It is time for the US government to urgently suspend arms transfers to Israel and to push for a UN arms embargo on all parties to the conflict," it said in a petition to US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Hamas said Wednesday it fired rockets at Tel Aviv and the southern port city of Ashkelon in response to the market and school strikes.

“Such a massacre requires an earthquake-like response," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

The Israeli military said that a rocket hit open ground "in the Tel Aviv area" and another two were intercepted over Ashkelon.

It said that a total of 81 rockets fell in Israel on Wednesday, with another nine shot down by missile defences and that Israel hit 88 targets in Gaza.

Little sign of ceasefire agreement

Early Thursday, Israeli warplanes attacked a mosque near the same UN school in Jabalia, wounding 15 Palestinians, emergency services said.

Medics said two more Palestinians died Thursday of wounds sustained previously, bringing the death toll from 23 days of unrelenting Israeli attacks to 1,363.

In Israel, the army said another three soldiers were killed in Gaza, raising the overall number of soldiers killed to 56. Three Israeli civilians have also been killed.

Despite the loss of life, there appeared to be little Israeli appetite for a truce, with a senior official telling Israel's Haaretz newspaper that the Jewish state was not even close to a ceasefire.

"When a ceasefire proposal that answers Israel's important needs is laid on the table, it will be considered," he said, warning that the military operation would expand.

"The (military) will expand attacks against Hamas and the rest of the terror organisations."

Nevertheless, a two-member Israeli delegation travelled to Cairo late Wednesday to discuss a possible ceasefire with Egyptian officials, an official at the airport told AFP, saying they were expected to leave after several hours.

Cairo, a key mediator in previous truce negotiations between Israel and Hamas, was also expected to host a Palestinian delegation later this week.


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