JERUSALEM — With fighting all around them, Israeli troops knocked on the door of the Samouni clan in Gaza City last weekend and told them to leave, directing them to the building owned by a relative. Twenty-four hours later, three shells slammed into the structure where dozens of people were huddling, according to survivor accounts Friday.
A newly released United Nations report said 30 people died in the shelling, citing four unidentified survivors who spoke by telephone. It called the shelling "one of the gravest incidents" to happen since Israeli infantry and armored troops entered Gaza Jan. 4 to quell Hamas rockets on Israel.
Other accounts given to The Associated Press and an Israeli human rights group provided lower casualty figures, but all agreed that shells hit the large, unfinished warehouse-like building a day after Israeli troops told them to get inside it for their safety.
The shelling allegedly occurred Monday, two days after Israel launched its ground operation into Gaza. It took place in the Zeitoun neighborhood, which suffered massive destruction from airstrikes and shelling from the ground.
The report, by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, offered no evidence that the attack was deliberate.
The Israeli military denied troops had forced civilians into a particular building, which was then shelled.
"We don't warn people to go to other buildings. This is not something we do," said spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich. "We don't know this case. We don't know that we attacked it. It's not confirmed that we attacked it."
Allegra Pacheco, a senior U.N. official in Jerusalem who helped draft the report on the incident for OCHA, added: "We are not making an accusation of deliberate action" by the Israelis.
"We are just saying the facts. In Gaza, no civilian is safe. As long as violence continues, civilians will be injured and killed," she said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the U.N. report should be the basis for an investigation of "war crimes elements." Her spokesman, Rupert Colville, said the "war crimes elements" would refer to allegations that Israel impeded medical teams trying to care for wounded civilians and failed to care for those injured in the attack.
Pillay told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that any harm to Israeli civilians by Hamas rockets was unacceptable, but it did not excuse abuses carried out by Israeli forces in response.
Pillay went further in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., saying the incident "appears to have all the elements of war crimes."
If an investigation found that Israel intentionally attacked a building it knew was filled with civilians, that also could constitute war crimes. U.N. human rights and humanitarian officials declined to comment on that possibility, saying a full examination of the facts was needed.
Another Israeli military spokesman, Maj. Jacob Dallal, said an investigation of the U.N. allegations showed the building was not deliberately targeted. "What we understand there was no pinpoint attack on that building in question. There is a lot of exchanges of fire. Gaza is a war zone. It's combat."
The incident highlighted the perilous situation of Gaza's 1.4 million residents, trapped in a narrow strip of land and wedged between two determined armed forces, Israel and Hamas.
Further limiting the ability to find out what happened, the casualties were sent to at least two hospitals, and surviving relatives were scattered through Gaza City and could not account for each other. Palestinian journalists have not risked visiting the site where fighting continues, and Israel has not allowed foreign reporters into Gaza.
On Monday, the AP interviewed survivor Salah Samouni at the hospital. He said the family had been ordered to go to the building Sunday by Israeli forces to avoid nearby fighting.
As he spoke, Samouni was distraught, banging his head in mourning for of his three nephews whose bodies he brought to the hospital.
The U.N. report differed in detail from an account to the AP on Friday by Ahmad Samouni and from Meysa Samouni, who told her story to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem. But they all concurred that Israeli troops directed dozens of members of the Samouni clan into at least one building, which was shelled the next day.
Ahmad Samouni, 23, said Israeli troops forced him and his extended family to leave their three-story home on Sunday. Once on the road, another squad of soldiers told them to go into another building belonging to Wael Samouni _ and stay there.
He said at least 60 people were in the building, while the U.N. said 110 people were inside when the shells hit.
Ahmad Samouni said a missile slammed into the door. The explosion threw him to the ground and he heard another two loud bangs, he said.
With the dust still swirling, he recalled fleeing in terror from the building, shouting to those still alive to follow him and leaving behind the bodies of his mother and at least eight other relatives.
In Meysa Samouni's account, the clan stayed there Sunday night without food or drink. In the morning, two relatives opened the door to search for other family members.
"The moment they left the house, a missile or shell hit them. Muhammed was killed on the spot, and the others were injured from shrapnel," she said, according to the transcript. "My husband went over to them to help, and then a shell or missile was fired onto the roof."
Ahmad Samouni said that when he lifted his head, he saw a gruesome sight: his mother's face was ripped off, his cousin was burned beyond recognition, and his sister-in-law's back was ripped open. Other relatives lay in heaps. Samouni said he counted nine unmoving bodies.
His face covered with blood and dust, Samouni said he stood and screamed "'Whoever is alive, come outside. If we raise our hands up, they won't shoot us, but we have to go.'"
Samouni said about 40 relatives walked out, many with hands raised. He said Israeli forces, watching them from nearby rooftops and positions on the ground, allowed them to pass, neither helping nor attacking them.
They made their way to the center of town, to the hospital or to other relatives.
The bodies of at least one Samouni man and his three children killed in the explosion were found in a Gaza City hospital. Desperate relatives pleaded with doctors to send rescue teams to find their kin in the rubble.
On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva accused Israel of "unacceptable" delays in letting rescue workers reach three Gaza City homes hit by shelling, where they eventually found 15 dead and 18 wounded, including young children too weak to stand.
The Red Cross statement referred to the same Zeitoun neighborhood, but it was unclear if it involved the incident with the Samouni clan, or if it was the same building.
The rescue team "found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up," the statement said. "In all, there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses" in one of the buildings, it added.
"The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded," the Red Cross said. "Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestine Red Crescent to assist the wounded."
The Israeli military said it is closely cooperating with international aid groups to assist civilians caught in the crossfire.
"The Israel Defense Forces are engaged in a battle with the Hamas terrorist organization that has deliberately used Palestinian civilians as human shields," a military statement said. "The IDF in no way intentionally targets civilians and has demonstrated its willingness to abort operations to save civilian lives and to risk injury in order to assist innocent civilians."
Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City and Bradley Klapper in Geneva contributed to this story.
(This version CORRECTS New approach. RETRANSMITTING to correct spelling of `Leibovich' and `Allegra Pacheco' in grafs 6-7.)