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Gaza Civilian Toll Rises; Israel Blames Hamas

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. First this hour, to the latest in Gaza and southern Israel. Palestinian doctors say more than 30 people were killed at two schools run by the United Nations. They had taken shelter there. U.N. officials condemned the violence and demanded an Israeli investigation. Israel says it has agreed to an idea first raised today at the U.N. to set up a humanitarian corridor for delivering vital supplies to the people of the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, rocket fire by militants continued from Gaza today, and Israel announced the death of five soldiers, four of them killed by friendly fire. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Witnesses say three Israeli artillery or mortar rounds landed about 10 yards away from the Jabaliya Prep Girls School in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp in northern Gaza run by UNRWA, the U.N. Refugee Agency for Palestinians. U.N. officials, as well as doctors at two hospitals, say at least 30 people were killed and 15 critically wounded, all of them civilians who'd sought refuge in this U.N. facility. Witnesses say bodies were scattered in pools of blood amid pieces of clothing and shoes. Earlier in the day, another U.N. school was hit by Israeli tank fire, killing three displaced civilians.

Mr. JOHN GING (Director of Operations in Gaza, UNRWA): I'm extremely worried. The population here are terrorized by the situation.

WESTERVELT: That's Gaza's U.N. director, John Ging. We reached him in Gaza City. He says the deaths at the U.N schools reinforce the feeling among civilians that there are no protected areas in Gaza today.

Mr. GING: Because they know from the numbers that have been killed and injured already that, you know, they are not safe. And they can't even now be assured of safety in United Nations locations, which are identified to everybody, including the Israelis. We've given them the GPS coordinates of all of these locations. They know perfectly well where they are. They're clearly marked. They've got U.N. flags flying and so on. And yet this is what is happening.

WESTERVELT: In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces said late today that several mortar rounds were fired from within the Jabaliya U.N. school. The army claims two Hamas militants were among the dead when they returned mortar fire. The U.N. denies any rounds were fired from its school. Today, at still another U.N. school in Gaza City, angry, displaced civilians huddled hungry and scared in classrooms. Salahaddin Sultan(ph) says he fled the fighting in Beit Lahia in the north. He calls the Israeli invasion of Gaza a war crime.

Mr. SALAHADDIN SULTAN: (Through Translator) You see the U.N. attacks? Don't they see that this is a U.N. area? Is this logical? Should all of Gaza be punished because of a few rockets?

WESTERVELT: The overall Palestinian death toll is now well over 600, with the U.N. saying at least a quarter of the dead are civilians. Four Israelis have been killed by Hamas rocket fire in the 11-day-old war. Major Michael Oren, an Israeli military spokesman, says the majority of those killed in Gaza have been armed Hamas gunmen. He insists the army takes great pains to avoid civilian casualties, but he cautions that fighting in crowded, built-up areas such as Gaza is inherently complicated and risky.

Major MICHAEL OREN (Spokesman, Israel Defense Forces): We are fighting, again, against an enemy that is using civilians as a shield, that for its own purposes would like to maximize civilian casualties. That generates international pressure on Israel. With that, civilian casualties in any war, and certainly a war that's fought in a densely populated urban area, civilian casualties become virtually unavoidable.

WESTERVELT: The heaviest Israeli casualties overnight and today, meantime, came from the army's own deadly errors. Four Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza in two separate friendly fire incidents, including one in which a tank fired at a building after mistaking fellow soldiers for militants. A fifth soldier was killed today by Hamas fire.

Israeli leaders continue to say their objective is to neutralize the Hamas rocket threat, and that the operation will continue as long as it takes to do that. But with civilian casualties mounting, political and diplomatic pressure for an immediate cease-fire is almost sure to increase. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, on the Israel-Gaza border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.