Israel denies responsibility for deaths in Gaza school attack

Israel denies responsibility for deaths in Gaza school attack

JERUSALEM, July 27 (Xinhua) -- The Israeli army on Sunday denied to be responsible for the deaths of 16 Palestinians during Thursday's attack on a UN school in northern Gaza.

"The inquiry as well as documented footage conclude that a single errant mortar landed in the courtyard of the (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) UNRWA school in Beit Hanun when it was completely empty," an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson said.

The army said the findings are a result of a "comprehensive inquiry" of the events on Thursday, in which Hamas militants fired anti-tank missiles at IDF troops near the school and the IDF responded by firing mortars. Some 16 people, mostly women and children, were killed in the school and dozens wounded.

"The IDF stresses it does not operate or target international organizations in the Gaza Strip," the spokesperson added.

Earlier on Sunday evening, IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner suggested that the victims of the attack might have been caught in the crossfire or hit by rockets or mortars fired by Palestinian militants, the Times of Israel website reported.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the attack on Thursday, saying it "underscores the imperative for the killing to stop and to stop now."

UN inspectors announced on Tuesday that they discovered rockets stashed at the UNRWA school "in the course of routine inspection," which follows a similar discovery at another school a week before. They condemned the incidents and the endangerment of civilians.

On Sunday night, U.S. President Barack Obama talked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying there is a " strategic imperative" to reach an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire, which would turn into a permanent one like the agreement reached in November 2012 after Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense, the Ha'aretz daily reported.

Obama's comments came amid incessant efforts to reach a cease- fire agreement from U.S. Secretary John Kerry, UN chief Ban Ki- moon, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and officials from Egypt and Qatar.

The Ha'aretz daily also reported late Sunday that Israeli military forces in Gaza were instructed to halt their fire in the next several days unless fired upon.

Israel's Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip entered its 20th day on Sunday. Netanyahu claimed the operation aims at stopping rocket attacks from Gaza and handling the tunnels which Israel says have been used by militants to carry out terror attacks against Israeli civilians and military.

According to Palestinian health officials, some 1,034 Palestinians have been killed, over 70 percent being civilians, and more than 6,233 wounded, while 43 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the ground operation and three Israeli civilians died in rocket attacks against southern Israel.