By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Allyn Fisher-Ilan
GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 24 (Reuters) - Gazan authorities said Israeli forces shelled a shelter at a U.N.-run school on Thursday, killing at least 15 people as the Palestinian death toll in the conflict climbed over 760 and attempts at a truce remained elusive.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his horror at the attack on the school at Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza strip. "Many have been killed - including women and children, as well as U.N. staff," he said in a statement. "Circumstances are still unclear. I strongly condemn this act."
Ban later arrived to Cairo where he was expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been working the telephones to try to broker an elusive truce.
Kerry's spokesman said the school attack incident "underscores the need to end the violence".
But there was no sign of progress on securing a ceasefire in his four days in the region. "Gaps remain between the parties," a senior U.S. official said, adding that Kerry wouldn't stay "for an indefinite amount of time."
The Israeli military said it was investigating the incident.
Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said there was a chance the school had been hit by stray Hamas rockets. "It could be errant fire from the IDF or rockets landing from Gaza terrorists but we still don't know, there's still a question mark," he told Reuters TV.
A spokesman for the U.N. relief agency said it had tried in vain to arrange an evacuation of civilians from the school with the Israeli army, and noted reports of Hamas rockets falling in the area at the same time.
Pools of blood lay on the ground and on students' desks in the courtyard of the school near the apparent impact mark of the shell, according to a Reuters photographer at the scene.
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 meters 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.
Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry, said that as well as the 15 dead, 200 people had been wounded in the attack. The director of a local hospital said various medical centers around Beit Hanoun were receiving the wounded.
More than 140,000 Palestinians have fled 17 days of fighting between Israel and Gaza militants, many of them seeking shelter in buildings run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Israeli forces are trying to stop militants from Hamas and their allies from firing rockets into its territory.
"It's clear that civilians are paying an unimaginable price caught between both sides," said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness. "We were attempting to arrange a window for evacuation for the civilians with the Israeli army that never came. The consequences were deeply tragic."
Britain called on Gaza's rulers to accept a truce unconditionally. "Hamas must agree to a humanitarian ceasefire without pre-conditions," Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told a news conference in Cairo as Egypt tries to mediate.
"Then ... the Palestine Authority (and) Israel would come together for discussions to ensure a lasting and sustainable peace in Gaza so that we do not repeat this cycle of violence."
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said on Wednesday his fighters had made gains against Israel and voiced support for a humanitarian truce, but only if Israel eased restrictions on Gaza's 1.8 million people. Hamas wants Egypt to open up its border with Gaza too.
The Palestinian death toll in Gaza reached 762 on Thursday, officials said. Israel has lost at least 32 soldiers in clashes inside Gaza and with Hamas raiders who have slipped under the fortified frontier in tunnels.
Palestinian rockets and mortar bombs have also killed three civilians in Israel. Such attacks surged last month as Israel cracked down on Hamas in the occupied West Bank, triggering the July 8 air and sea barrage on the Gaza Strip that escalated into an invasion a week ago.
With Washington's encouragement, and the involvement of Turkey and Hamas ally Qatar, Egypt has been trying to broker a limited humanitarian ceasefire for the battered enclave.
One Cairo official said on Wednesday it could take effect by the weekend, in time for the Eid al-Fitr festival next Monday or Tuesday, Islam's biggest annual celebration at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
But a U.S. official described any truce by the weekend as unlikely, as did an Israeli security cabinet minister who said the army would need one to two weeks to complete its main mission of razing tunnels used by Hamas for cross-border raids.
"If the talk is of a humanitarian hiatus for - this is not pleasant to say - removing bodies, all kinds of things that are connected to the civilian population in the short-term, this might be weighed," the minister, Gilad Erdan, told Israel Radio.
"But I will oppose any ceasefire until it is clear both that the tunnels will be destroyed and what will happen in the post-ceasefire period - how we will guarantee that quiet for the residents of Israel will really be preserved in the long term."
Israel earlier won a partial reprieve from the economic damage of the war with the lifting of a U.S. ban on commercial flights to Tel Aviv.
Though Israel's Iron Dome rocket interceptor has shot down most of the rockets fired from Gaza, one that came close to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday prompted the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to bar American flights there.
An ensuing wave of cancellations by foreign airlines sharply reduced traffic at Israel's usually bustling international gateway at the height of the summer tourist season. It was hailed as a victory by Hamas and prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appeal to the Obama administration to intervene.
The FAA canceled the ban late on Wednesday after reviewing the security situation. The European Air Safety Agency (EASA) said on Thursday it was about to follow suit and lift its own recommendation to avoid flying to Tel Aviv.
US Airways, a unit of American Airlines Group Inc, said it was resuming its non-stop Tel Aviv to Philadelphia service. Germany's Lufthansa said its suspension of flights to Tel Aviv would continue to Friday.
Gaza militants continued to fire rockets at Israel on Thursday, sending thousands in the country's south racing to shelters or safe rooms. There were no reported casualties.
U.N. COUNCIL INQUIRY
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Wednesday that there was "a strong possibility" that Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza, where medical officials say most of those killed were civilians.
Pillay also condemned indiscriminate Islamist rocket fire out of Gaza, and the U.N. Human Rights Council said it would launch an international inquiry into alleged violations.
A furious Netanyahu denounced the inquiry as a "travesty".
"The HRC should be launching an investigation into Hamas's decision to turn hospitals into military command centers, use schools as weapons depots and place missile batteries next to playgrounds, private homes and mosques," he said.
Ban, who has also been on a truce-seeking mission, lashed out earlier at Gaza militants, expressing "outrage and regret" that rockets had been found inside a U.N. school for refugees for the second time during the conflict.
He said storing rockets there "turned schools into potentially military targets, endangering the lives of innocent children", along with U.N. employees and the tens of thousands of sheltering Palestinians. He urged an investigation.
Gaza has been rocked by regular bouts of violence since Israel unilaterally pulled out of the territory in 2005. (Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Gaza, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Arshad Mohammed, Yasmine Saleh and Shadia Nasralla in Cairo, Amena Bakr in Doha, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, and Thomas Seythal in Berlin; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Paul Taylor, David Stamp and Robin Pomeroy)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT
White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting
The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.
"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.
08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT
Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza
Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.
The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT
Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue
Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.
"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."
Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.
08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT
Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks
Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT
Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume
BREAKING: Israel says it's resumed strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, after end of 3-day truce.— The Associated Press (@AP) August 8, 2014
08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks
A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.
The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.
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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT
Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire
Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.
Hamas had no immediate comment.
08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT
IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm
IDF confirms rocket sirens in southern Israel were false alarm http://t.co/QN677jtlXE— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) August 6, 2014
08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT
Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border
ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.
08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT
Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect
Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.
Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.
Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.
The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.
The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.
Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.
Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.