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Toll at U.N. school in Gaza reaches 43

Almost 150 were injured when Israeli troops, who say they were responding to mortar fire, shelled the Al Fakhoura School. U.N. staff says there were no militants there.

January 08, 2009|Ashraf Khalil and Geraldine Baum

JERUSALEM AND THE UNITED NATIONS — Facts remained murky Wednesday on the Israeli tank shelling of a U.N. school in the Gaza Strip that U.N. relief officials said left 43 Palestinians dead and almost 150 injured.

The Israeli military continued to defend its troops, saying they were responding to mortar fire from militants on or near the school grounds, where the U.N. says about 1,600 people were taking shelter from the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Meanwhile, John Ging, Gaza director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said he visited the school, where he was "reassured by my own staff [there] that there were no militants in the schools."

"If anybody has evidence to the contrary, then let's bring it forward," Ging told reporters in New York via video link.

Also still unclear was the number of women and children among the dead.

U.N. officials and human rights groups are pressing for an independent inquiry into the attack, the deadliest since the Israeli offensive in Gaza began Dec. 27.

"There must be a serious and independent investigation into the shocking loss of civilian life that took place near the U.N. school and that has characterized this conflict," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

At least three Israeli tank shells struck the Al Fakhoura School in the Jabaliya refugee camp Tuesday afternoon. The school was serving as a temporary shelter for families fleeing the fighting that has engulfed the northern end of the Gaza Strip, a small coastal territory.

Images of the dead and wounded, broadcast around the globe, have inflamed public opinion in the Arab world and spurred calls for an immediate end to Israel's campaign against Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 from a rival Palestinian faction.

Israel has regularly accused Hamas of deliberately placing Gazan civilians at risk by firing rockets from residential areas and hiding weapons inside homes and mosques. Two Hamas "terror operatives" were killed in the strike on the school, Israel has said.

Ging said the school was clearly marked as a U.N. building and that GPS coordinates for the site had been provided to Israeli forces.

Since the attack, 200 more Palestinians have come to the school seeking refuge. When he talked to the witnesses, Ging said, "I was humbled by their dignity. They were so stoic in the face of such a stressful circumstance, and they still believe in the U.N."

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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