Gaza death toll approaches 800, no sign of ceasefire

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Though Israel's air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip has claimed the lives of almost 800 Palestinian civilians by Thursday night, the international efforts to broker a ceasefire still have hardly showed any signs of substantial progress.

Medics said that a latest round of Israeli airstrike on Thursday hit three houses in Khan Younis in southern Gaza Strip, killing 10 Palestinians, including an infant, and injuring 15 others, raising the total death toll caused by Israel's strike to 797.

Earlier on Thursday four Israeli tanks shells hit a school that was run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees ( UNRWA) in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, killing 16 civilians and wounded dozens more who were taking refuge there, medics and witnesses said. The death toll is likely to increase, as many casualties "are still in critical conditions."

Witnesses said that the four shells directly hit the school where dozens of civilians were sitting in classrooms and children playing in the yard. Beit Hanoun mayor said that the targeted school was hosting some 1,200 homeless local residents who had fled from Israeli bombardment, and that the Israeli army had previously asked them to evacuate.

"When the people were preparing to leave the school and go to another safe place, the tanks began to fire the shells and hit the school with four tanks shells that killed and wounded dozens of women and children," the mayor said.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza later said that targeting a UNRWA school was "a big war crime. Israel will pay a very heavy price for committing all these crimes against women and children." An official with the Palestine Liberation Organization also said that attacking the school was "a big shame for humanity and for this fascist Israeli government."

But the Israeli military said on Thursday night that the strike on the school was in retaliation to the shooting at them from the vicinity of the school. Initial inquiries into the incident showed that militants opened fire from the school area at Israeli soldiers who later responded with heavy fire, the Israeli military added. The military Spokesperson's Unit said the army had warned civilians to evacuate from the area and even authorized a humanitarian time window for evacuation, but "Hamas prevented the civilians from leaving it and once again used their infrastructure and international symbols as human shields."

Later UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "appalled" by the attack which "underscores the imperative for the killing to stop -- and to stop now." He said among the dead were "women and children, as well as UN staff."

The Health Ministry in Gaza said on Thursday that the ongoing Israeli offensive on the strip, which started in July 8, has already killed at least 797 Palestinians, two thirds being civilians including women and children, and wounded more than 5, 000 others. Earlier on Wednesday the UN human rights agency decided to form a committee to look into possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza.

Also on Thursday Israel arrested some 150 alleged Hamas members in Gaza's Rafah area near the border with Egypt, a military spokesperson said. Though Israel has also lost four civilians and 28 troops since its military operation in Gaza started over two weeks ago, its Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said he instructed the troops on Wednesday to prepare for a wider ground war.

Despite the mass civilian casualties in Gaza, the ongoing international efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas-led militants still seemed to have not yielded any substantial progress.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jordan on Thursday to discuss the latest developments in Gaza. Both sides of the meeting voiced their support to Egypt in brokering a ceasefire and underlined the need for continued coordination in the progress. Kerry was earlier in Egypt and Israel to push for a truce in Gaza.

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