Fifteen Palestinians were killed yesterday when an Israeli shell slammed into a UN shelter where hundreds of civilians had taken refuge, sending the death toll in Gaza soaring to 788 despite world efforts to broker a ceasefire.
The strike hit a UN school sheltering some of the 100,000 Palestinians driven from their homes in search of a safe haven after weeks of deadly fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.
The shell crashed down in the middle of the courtyard where people had set up camp, leaving the ground covered in bloodstains.
Gaza's emergency services said at least 15 people had been killed and more than 200 wounded. They were among 93 people who died on the 17th day of the Israeli offensive.
So far, 32 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have died in the fighting.
The strike came despite UN efforts to broker a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the school as fighting was raging around it. An AFP correspondent saw nine bodies, including that of a year-old baby and his mother at a nearby mortuary.
Scores of crying families who had been living in the school ran with their children to a hospital where the victims were being treated a few hundred metres away. Laila Al-Shinbari, a woman who was at the school when it was shelled, told Reuters that families had gathered in the courtyard expecting to be evacuated shortly in a Red Cross convoy.
"All of us sat in one place when suddenly four shells landed on our heads ... Bodies were on the ground, (there was) blood and screams. My son is dead and all my relatives are wounded including my other kids," she wept.
UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said: "Many have been killed -- including women and children, as well as UN staff."
He said he was "appalled" by the news and "strongly condemned" the attack which he said "underscores the imperative for the killing to stop -- and to stop now".
Washington said it was "deeply saddened and concerned about the tragic incident", without explicitly blaming its ally Israel for the shelling.
Amid raging violence, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos yesterday expressed deep concern about the mounting civilian casualties, saying it was "almost impossible" for Palestinians to shelter from Israeli air strikes in the densely-populated territory.
Amos has described the situation in Gaza as “dire”, as the organisation revealed that one child has been killed every hour in the conflict for the past three days.
According to the latest situation report from Gaza by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the most recent shelling has caused damage to six UN-run schools, among 83 hosting at least 140,000 people who have been forced to evacuate their homes.
The Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs said the most pressing concern in the “terrible” situation was that “so many children have been killed as a result of the violence in the last few days”.
At least 23 children had died in the fighting over the period covered by the OCHA's last daily report. At least 26 had died in the 24 hours before that – and the trend averaging one child death an hour now goes back three days.
Baroness Amos said: “People are sheltering in UN schools which as a result cannot be used for education. They are running out of food, and water is also a serious concern.
"The reality in Gaza is, it doesn't matter how hard Israel tries to minimise harm, this is an extremely overcrowded stretch of land," Amos told BBC radio.
“With about 44 per cent of Gaza not able to be used by Palestinians leaving their homes the situation is even more dire. But the majority of those killed in Gaza are women, children and men who have nothing to do with the fighting. That we have had children, so many children killed as a result of the violence in the last few days is a terrible, terrible situation.”
The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has said more than 80 percent of the casualties so far have been civilians, and a quarter of them children, triggering growing international alarm over the civilian body count.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry reached out to Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar yesterday as he sought to further regional efforts to broker an end to the bloodshed.
Hamas has rejected the proposal so far, with its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal saying late Wednesday that there could be no halt to the fighting without an end to Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza first.
Situated on the Mediterranean coast, flanking Israel and Egypt, the Gaza Strip is home to 1.7 million Palestinians who live in an area stretching just 362 square kilometres, making it one of the most densely-populated territories on the planet.