JERUSALEM — Israel withdrew most of its ground troops from the Gaza Strip on Sunday, but an Israeli air force missile struck near the entrance of a UN school sheltering displaced Gazans in Rafah, killing 10 people and wounding 35 others.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the strike a “moral outrage and a criminal act” and demanded that those responsible for the “gross violation of international humanitarian law” be held accountable. The State Department also condemned what it called a “disgraceful shelling.”
Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, confirmed the bulk of ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza after the military concluded it had destroyed most of the tunnel network, the Associated Press reported.
But with Hamas firing dozens of rockets into Israeli territory on Sunday and its officials vowing to continue the fight, it was uncertain whether Israel could unilaterally end the war.
Even as Israel moved to reduce fighting on the ground in Gaza, violence continued around Rafah, near Egypt.
On Sunday, 71 Palestinians died, raising the total to 1,822, with 9,370 injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Estimates of the number of Palestinian combatants killed varied widely, with some Israeli officials suggesting that number was more than 700, while the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Saturday that of the 1,525 dead Palestinians to that point, “at least 1,033 are civilians, of whom 329 are children and 187 are women.”
The Israelis have said that on their side, 64 soldiers and three civilians have died.
Witnesses near the Rafah school, where about 3,000 Palestinians had sought shelter, said that those killed or hurt were waiting in line for food supplies when a missile hit.
The Israeli army said it had targeted three members of the group Islamic Jihad on a motorcycle near the school with a missile, not the school itself, and was investigating a possible secondary explosion when the motorcycle was hit.
A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”
With its stated task of destroying Hamas’s tunnel network into Israel within days of being finished, Israel seemed to be trying to de-escalate the war without negotiating with Hamas, much as it did at the end of the last major Gaza operation, in 2009, when Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire.
Lerner said some Israeli forces are still operating inside Gaza, especially around Rafah, and the air force is continuing to bomb Gaza. “It’s changing gears but it’s still ongoing,” he said. Israel has never specified how many troops are operating in Gaza, saying only “thousands.”
Mohammed Muafai, who works for the United Nations, said he was inside the school when the missile hit. In a telephone interview, he said there were bodies on the ground, including two guards and a sanitation worker. He said seven more people from displaced families also died, including one selling flavored ice.
Dr. Abdullah Shehada, director of the Abu Youssef Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah, whose staff was moved to the smaller Kuwaiti Hospital, said more than 30 people with injuries were brought in. “We call for halting the Israeli operation around Abu Youssef Al-Najjar so we can return,” he said.
Last Wednesday, 21 Palestinians who sought refuge in a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp were killed, Health Ministry officials said, in a series of predawn strikes. The Israeli military has said that it did not target the school and that Palestinian fighters were operating within 200 yards.
After an earlier strike on a school serving as a shelter in Beit Hanoun that killed 16, the Israelis acknowledged they fired a mortar round that hit the courtyard but insisted that the yard had been empty at the time.
Earlier Sunday, airstrikes killed at least 30 Palestinians, medics and witnesses said.
Israel said that 55 rockets were fired from Gaza on Sunday and that its troops killed eight Hamas fighters in southern Gaza.
Israeli officials on Sunday defended their decision to announce the death of a missing Israeli soldier at 2 a.m., only hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on national television to say that he had no new information about the case.
Army spokesmen said Sunday that the declaration of the death of Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, was made as soon as possible and that DNA tests had been carried out on partial remains.
The lieutenant and two colleagues were attacked by a Hamas squad that emerged from a tunnel Friday, the army said. One of the Hamas fighters had exploded a suicide belt.
“We can’t determine if he was killed on the ground or from the blast,” said Lerner, the army spokesman. “The indications on the ground are that he was killed in the initial attack.”
He said that the tests had been carried out during the Sabbath because it was an emergency situation. The relatives of Goldin had made emotional appeals earlier Saturday, before Netanyahu spoke, that Israel and its army not leave the lieutenant behind, and they said that they believed he was still alive.
The family buried him Sunday in an emotional funeral attended by thousands at the military cemetery in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv.
Israel has said that the attack occurred during an agreed cease-fire with Hamas; Hamas has said variously it took place before the cease-fire went into effect and it had never agreed to a cease-fire that would allow Israel to continue destroying the tunnel system. But the episode ended a cease-fire effort pressed by Washington and the United Nations.