GAZA CITY, Gaza - Israeli mortar shells exploded yesterday near a UN school in Gaza that was sheltering hundreds of people displaced by Israel's onslaught against Hamas militants, killing at least 30 Palestinians.
Israel's military said its shelling, the deadliest single episode since Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza on Saturday, was a response to mortar fire from within the school and said militants were using civilians as cover.
Two residents of the area who spoke by telephone said they saw a small group of militants firing mortar rounds from a street near the school, where 350 people had gathered to get away from the shelling. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Majed Hamdan, an AP photographer, rushed to the scene shortly after the attacks. At the hospital, he said, many children were among the dead.
"I saw women and men - parents - slapping their faces in grief, screaming, some of them collapsed to the floor. They knew their children were dead," he said. "In the morgue, most of the killed appeared to be children. In the hospital, there wasn't enough space for the wounded." He said there appeared to be marks on the pavement of five separate explosions in area of the school.
An Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it appeared that the military used 120-mm shells, among the largest mortar rounds.
UN officials demanded an investigation of the shelling. The carnage, which included 55 wounded, added to a surging civilian toll and drew mounting international pressure for Israel to end the offensive against Hamas.
President-elect Barack Obama broke his silence on the crisis yesterday, saying, "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern for me." He declined to go further, repeating that the United States has only one president at a time.
At the UN in Manhattan, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli bombardment of the group's facilities in Gaza "totally unacceptable." Israel's shells have fallen around three schools, including the girls school hit yesterday, and a health center for Palestinian refugees.
Some 15,000 Palestinians have packed the UN's 23 Gaza schools because their homes were destroyed or to flee the violence. The UN provided the Israeli military with GPS coordinates for all of them.
In the wake of criticism, Israel agreed to set up a "humanitarian corridor" to ship vital supplies to the Gaza Strip, an idea that had been floated by the UN Security Council. Under the plan, Israel will suspend attacks in certain areas to allow people to get supplies.
The three mortar shells that crashed down on the perimeter of the UN school struck at midafternoon, when many people in the densely populated camp were outside.
A total of 71 Palestinians were killed yesterday, with just two confirmed as militants, health officials in Gaza said. Dr. Bassam Abu Warda, director of Kamal Adwan Hospital, said 36 people were killed, while the UN confirmed 30 deaths.
Seven Israeli soldiers have been killed since the ground operation began, including four killed Monday in a two separate friendly fire incidents. Higher tolls among soldiers could also sap support for the offensive.
THE LATEST A CHANCE AT PEACE? France and Egypt announced an initiative late yesterday to stop the fighting. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner released no details, saying a response from Israel was awaited. Jerusalem declined to comment immediately. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN.
30 DEAD IN SHELLING AT UN SCHOOL. Israeli mortar shells exploded near a UN school sheltering the displaced, killing 30 Palestinians in the deadliest single episode since troops entered Gaza on Saturday.
TROOPS PUSH SOUTH.
Israeli tanks rumbled closer to the towns of Khan Younis and Dir el Balah in south and central Gaza.
OBAMA SPEAKS. President-elect Barack Obama broke his silence, saying "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is
a source of deep concern." Al-Qaida's Ayman al- Zawahiri, in an taped audio message said the assault was "Obama's gift to Israel."
DIPLOMATIC PROTEST. Venezuela expelled Israel's ambassador and embassy personnel, saying the
Gaza assault was disproportionate.