Middle East Crisis: Israeli Airstrike Kills Dozens as Offensive in Central Gaza Escalates

An Israeli airstrike early Thursday hit a United Nations school complex in central Gaza that had become a shelter for thousands of displaced Palestinians, killing dozens of people. Israel’s military said the attack had targeted Hamas operatives but Palestinian officials said it had killed civilians.

The strike was the latest in a deadly surge in fighting in central Gaza, where Israeli forces have announced an offensive against what they describe as a renewed insurgency by Hamas militants.

The bodies of more than 40 people killed in the attack were brought to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the central Gaza city of Deir al Balah, a spokesman for the medical facility, Khalil Daqran, said on Thursday morning. At least some of the victims were women, children and older people, he added, although he declined to provide a precise figure.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said he was “not aware of any civilian casualties” as a result of the strike. “We conducted a precise strike against the terrorists where they were,” he added.

At least 140 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds more wounded in recent days during the Israeli offensive in central Gaza, Dr. Daqran said, severely taxing the hospital’s already depleted resources.

“Wounded patients are lying on the ground in the hallways and in tents outside,” he said. “And our capability to treat them at this point is extremely limited.”

The renewed offensive comes as cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas remain stuck, with senior officials on both sides expressing deep concerns over a proposal endorsed by President Biden to pause the fighting in exchange for the release of hostages held in Gaza.

The Biden administration dispatched top officials this week to Egypt and Qatar, which have been mediating the talks, but Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have signaled they are not ready to wind down their eight-month war in Gaza, which has killed more than 36,000 people there, according to Palestinian health officials in the enclave.

The Israeli strike overnight hit a compound in Nuseirat that had been operated by UNRWA, the main U.N. body that aids Palestinians in Gaza. About 6,000 displaced Palestinians were sheltering in the complex when the strike took place, said Juliette Touma, an UNRWA spokeswoman.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets had targeted three classrooms in a school building that held 20 to 30 Palestinian militants affiliated with Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller militia also backed by Iran. Israeli forces had twice postponed the strike so as to reduce civilian casualties, the military said.

Lt. Col. Lerner, the Israeli military spokesman, said the militants were “effectively operating under the U.N. flag” in an attempt to avoid Israeli fire, in what he said was the fifth such incident in the past month. He said the militants had used the compound to plan attacks on Israeli forces, although he did not provide specific evidence.

Palestinians mourn relatives killed in an Israeli airstrike at an UNRWA school in Nuseirat on Thursday.Credit…Bashar Taleb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

UNRWA said it could not verify Israel’s claim that Hamas had used the school’s premises for military purposes. At least 450 people have been killed while sheltering in schools and other facilities run by UNRWA since the beginning of the war, according to the agency.

In mid-April, UNRWA said in a report that the Israeli military had committed the majority of “attacks and actions” that had damaged or harmed its facilities, but that Palestinian armed groups had been responsible for some as well.

Israel has campaigned to isolate the U.N. agency, claiming that hundreds of UNRWA employees are members of Palestinian militant groups. Israeli officials have also said that at least 12 agency employees participated in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel or its aftermath. At least 17 countries, including the United States, suspended funding in response, and UNRWA fired several of the workers that Israel accused of involvement in the attack.

A U.N. review later found that Israel had presented no evidence to support its allegation that hundreds of UNRWA employees are affiliated with militant groups. Many countries have renewed their support for the agency.

Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the Israeli military for failing to sufficiently protect civilians from its airstrikes. Israeli officials say that they make efforts to limit civilian casualties, but that Hamas and other Palestinian militants deliberately hide among ordinary Gazans.

In late May, the Israeli military struck a building in southern Gaza in an area where displaced people had been sheltering, saying it had targeted two Hamas commanders there. At least 45 people were killed in that strike and a resulting fire, according to Gazan health officials. Mr. Netanyahu called the civilian deaths in the strike “a tragic accident.”

Lauren Leatherby contributed reporting.

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