By Karin Laub and Peter Enav
JEBALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip – An Israeli airstrike hit a crowded Gaza shopping area on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people and wounding more than 150, hours after Israeli tank shells slammed into a U.N. school sheltering displaced Palestinians, killing 15 people, Gaza health officials said.
The latest deadly strikes came on the heels of an escalation in the embattled coastal territory, with Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers stepping up attacks after more than three weeks of fighting that has killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and more than 50 Israelis.
Gaza health ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra and witnesses said the shopping area was busy because residents, and many who had taken shelter in the area from fighting elsewhere, thought a cease-fire was in place. The Palestinian Red Crescent confirmed the death toll.
The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the strike on the shopping area and said it was investigating the report.
Israel had earlier announced a “humanitarian window” in certain parts of the territory. But it said it would not halt fire in other areas, including in Shijaiyah, where the strike took place. Hamas dismissed the cease-fire, and Gaza militants fired 27 rockets at Israel after it began.
Eyewitnesses said an airstrike hit a warehouse on the edge of Shijaiyah, causing a fire and sending a large cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky. Firefighters and medical vehicles arrived at the scene, according to an Associated Press photographer.
The second airstrike struck an area about 500 meters away, according to witnesses, immediately killing at least 16 people, among them local Palestinian photographer Rami Rayan, who was wearing a press vest at the time.
“People were in the street and in the market, mostly women and kids. Suddenly more than 10 shells landed in the area, the market, in the Turkman area, and next to the gas station,” said Salim Qadoum, 26, who witnessed the strike.
“The area now is like a blood bath, everyone is wounded or killed. People lost their limbs and were screaming for help. It’s a massacre. I vomited when I saw what happened.”
Israeli airstrikes and shelling killed more than 108 Palestinians across the coastal territory throughout the day Wednesday.
The military had declared a four-hour humanitarian cease-fire in parts of Gaza beginning at 3:00 p.m., but Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said it lacked any “value” because it excluded border areas from where Hamas wanted to evacuate the wounded.
Gaza militants fired 84 rockets at Israel Wednesday, including more than 26 after the cease-fire was announced, the military said. Al-Kidra, the Gaza health official, said seven Palestinians were killed by an Israeli airstrike in the same period.
The Israeli military said three of its soldiers were killed Wednesday when a house Palestinian militants had rigged with explosives collapsed after they identified an entrance to a tunnel inside. More than a dozen soldiers were wounded in heavy fighting Wednesday, it said.
The latest violence further dimmed hopes of a sustainable truce in the fighting, now in its fourth week.