JABALIYA, Gaza Strip — The strikes came in rapid succession. Around 5 a.m. Wednesday at a UN school at the Jabaliya refugee camp, where 3,300 Palestinians had taken refuge from the fierce fighting in their Gaza neighborhoods, what appeared to be four Israeli artillery shells hit the compound.
One hit the street in front of the entrance, according to several witnesses. Two others hit classrooms where people were sleeping, and a fourth struck a house behind the school.
Palestinian health officials said at least 20 people were killed by what witnesses and UN officials said was the latest in a series of strikes on UN facilities that are supposed to be safe zones in the 23-day-old battle between Israel and Hamas and other militants.
“My house was burned and death followed us here,” said Ahmed Mousa, 50, who was in the school courtyard when the shells hit. “Where am I supposed to go?”
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the Israeli military said no UN facility had been targeted during the operation. A military spokeswoman said Palestinian militants had “opened fire at Israeli soldiers from the vicinity” of the school in the Jabaliya refugee camp Wednesday, and that the Israeli troops “responded by firing toward the origins of the fire.”
The military had earlier denied responsibility for 16 deaths last week at another UN school serving as a shelter, in Beit Hanoun, saying that the only piece of Israeli ordnance to hit the school compound, an errant mortar, struck when the courtyard was empty.
Robert Turner, the Gaza-based director of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which is sheltering more than 200,000 Palestinians in 85 of its schools, said Wednesday there had been at least five and perhaps seven strikes on the facilities since Israel’s ground operation in Gaza began on July 17. He was still checking reports that a school in the Shati refugee camp and one in the Mamouniya neighborhood of Gaza City had been hit overnight.
“What we’ve seen in our shelters is indicative of what we’ve seen more generally,” Turner said. “When they started naval bombardment, artillery and tank fire, that’s just not as accurate as airstrikes. They can’t see what they’re shooting at, so we’ve seen more destruction, more damage, more death.”
The Israeli military announced a four-hour humanitarian window Wednesday but said it would not apply to the areas where soldiers were operating, and that residents should not return to areas they had been asked to evacuate. That only added to the confusion on the ground, after four days of on-again, off-again lulls and mixed messages from various leaders about cease-fire agreements and negotiations.
In an apparent outcome of the confusion, at least 17 Palestinians were reported killed and as many as 200 were wounded when multiple shells hit an area in east Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, which residents thought was temporarily safe but which the Israelis considered part of an active combat zone. The dead included a Palestinian photojournalist and civil defense worker.
“Firefighters and ambulances arrived, then more shells — five or six landed,” said Mohammed Shamaly, 32, whose home was in the targeted neighborhood of car-repair garages and other workshops on Saladin Street. “I saw bodies torn apart,” he said. “Body parts everywhere.”
The Health Ministry in Gaza said at least 10 people were killed in other Israeli strikes elsewhere during Israel’s unilateral four-hour pause as well.
The “window” was to be from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and the military said in its announcement that troops would “respond to any attempt to exploit this window to harm Israeli civilians” and soldiers.
Hamas rejected the Israeli-declared lull, saying in a statement that it was “just for media consumption and has no value” because it excluded the areas near the border where hostilities continued, making it impossible to evacuate the injured from there.
The Israeli announcement came after Israel appeared to have intensified its assault overnight, even as Palestinian leaders struggled to coordinate their efforts to pursue some kind of cease-fire through talks in Cairo.
By evening, the Palestinian death toll since the conflict began on July 8 totaled at least 1,328, according to the Gaza-based health ministry.
Three Israeli soldiers were killed Wednesday while uncovering a tunnel shaft under a house in southern Gaza, the military announced, bringing the total to 56; two Israeli civilians and a foreign farmworker have also been killed, by mortar and rocket fire.
The military said it had detonated a total of four tunnels that led into Israeli territory Tuesday night and Wednesday, killing two militants as they emerged from one of them. Israel also struck five mosques overnight that a military statement said had been “utilized for terror purposes,” such as storing weapons or providing access to tunnels or lookout points.
“The progress is toward an offensive: We are shoring up the targets already reached and are taking over new locations,” Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, the chief spokesman for the Israeli military, told Army Radio on Wednesday. “There are a lot of targets in the Gaza Strip, and we are attacking from the northern to the southern Gaza Strip.”
Israel has hit 4,100 sites in Gaza, 1,566 of them connected to rocket-launching, 167 places that stored weapons and 746 “command-and-control centers,” the Israeli military said in its statement. The military said there had been 2,670 rockets and mortars fired toward Israel, and that about 280 of them had fallen short and landed within Gaza.
Far fewer sirens signaling incoming rockets sounded in Israel on Wednesday than in previous days. But in Gaza, there was little sign of a letup: An Israeli missile killed 10 members of the Astal family who had huddled in their diwan, or meeting room, according to news reports and the health ministry, among other major strikes.
Jabaliya, a refugee camp just north of Gaza City, has been under intense artillery shelling since Tuesday afternoon, with 50 killed people over a 24-hour period, health officials said. Already one of Gaza’s most densely crowded areas, its streets had been packed in recent days with people who fled their homes closer to the border when Israeli troops invaded. More and more had crowded into the Abu Hussein girls’ elementary school.
Turner of the United Nations said his agency had provided the GPS coordinates of the school to the Israel Defense Forces 17 times, starting July 16 and most recently Tuesday at 8:48 p.m., to ensure it would be spared. Ziad Yousef, who also works for the agency, said the doors were locked at 11 p.m. Tuesday so no one could come or go.
“People who saw that happen are now convinced there are no safe places left,” Yousef said.
At least four strikes hit in close succession in a straight line across the school compound, indicating artillery fire, according to people who saw the attack.
The drop ceiling of one classroom had collapsed, and the tin roof was peppered with shrapnel holes. The ground was covered with rubble, clothing and pools of blood. Sunlight shone through a hole in the roof of another classroom, also hit by a shell.
At the nearby Kamal Adwan hospital, Saeed Adham stood over the bed of his 15-year-old son, Rizek, whose right leg had been shattered by shrapnel. An X-ray of Rizek’s calf showed bones looking like an archipelago. Adham said his family was sleeping in a second-floor classroom when a strike shattered the windows, so they ran to a hallway, where a shell hit the roof. As he waited for surgery on his son’s leg, Adham said his wife and other children remained at Abu Hussein despite the danger.
“We have nowhere but the school,” he said.
Turner’s agency, which in calm times provides education, health care and other services to about 70 percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents who are classified as refugees, has found rockets in three of its empty schools during the conflict, most recently Tuesday. He said that the school attendant who had found the rockets in the third school evacuated shortly afterward and that the agency had been unable to return to the site Tuesday or Wednesday “because of active fighting” nearby.
Criticized in the two previous incidents by Israel and its supporters for having given the rockets to Gaza-based security officials, Turner said he hoped that UN experts would be able to dispose of the rockets found in the third school.
Robert H. Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, released a statement Wednesday saying that his agency’s compound in Gaza had also been hit early Tuesday “by a number of projectiles which caused damage to the main building and to United Nations vehicles.” A preliminary assessment showed five strikes on the compound and two on the ground outside, the statement said.
Serry “is deeply concerned about this incident and other violations of United Nations premises during the conflict,” said the statement, which did not directly blame Israel. “We have to remind relevant parties to the conflict of their responsibility to protect United Nations operations, personnel and premises which must remain inviolable.”