GAZA CITY (AFP) -- An Israeli shelling on a UN school in Gaza killed 16 people early Wednesday, medics said, as Palestinian factions were to head to Cairo to discuss a temporary humanitarian ceasefire.
As the conflict between Israel and Hamas entered its 23rd day, international efforts to bring an end to the bloodshed that has killed more than 1,260 people continued apace, and concern grew over the high civilian death toll, especially among children.
Since the war began on July 8, when Israel launched a campaign to stop rocket fire from Gaza and destroy attack tunnels, a series of concerted international efforts to bring a truce have fallen flat.
On Wednesday morning, an Israeli shell slammed into a UN school in Jabaliya refugee camp that was being used as a shelter for those displaced by fighting, killing 16 people, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said.
Al-Qidra identified some of the dead as Issam Jaber al-Khatib, Said Abu Jalala, Taysir Hammad, Luay al-Feiri, Bassem Khalid al-Najjar, Thair Khalid al-Najjar, Usama Muhammad Suhweil, Bilal Midhat al-Amudi, Muhammad Moussa Ghabn, Adel Muhammad Abu Qamar, Abdullah Midhat al-Amudi, Ramadan Khader Salman, Alaa Khader Salman, Ali Ahmad Shahin, and Rami Barakat.
At least one more victim is yet to be identified.
The bodies were taken to Kamal Adwan hospital in Jabaliya and al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City.
A UN official confirmed the shelling, saying it hit a bathroom and two classrooms in the school.
The incident occurred after 5:30 a.m., and a couple of hours after Israeli tanks had begun heavy shelling in the area, an AFP correspondent said.
Two shells struck the Jabaliya school, one hitting a classroom on the ground floor where people had been staying and a second slamming into the top floor, hitting another classroom which was apparently empty.
Inside the school yard was a makeshift animal pen where several horses and donkeys had been killed by shrapnel, lying in pools of blood as other terrified animals cowered nearby.
Facing onto the yard was a classroom whose wall had been completely destroyed.
Inside, two young men wearing Palestinian boy scout scarves were engaged in the grisly task of collecting body parts. With no gloves, their hands were completely stained with blood as the picked up chunks of flesh and put them into thin plastic bags.
"They're bombing houses, homes, schools -- there's no protection," said Moin al-Athamna, one of those staying at the school, saying everyone had been sleeping when the first shell hit.
"They were all kids in there, young people," said Hisham al-Masri. "Why would they do this? Where can people go?"
An AFP correspondent said the army had been pounding the area with tank fire for an hour prior to the incident.
The outer wall of the complex had also been damaged and a number of dead animals including donkeys could be seen lying on the ground.
A UN official told AFP that Israeli shells had hit the building at around 5:30 am.
Those sheltering there quickly gathered their belongings and fled.
The army had been pounding the area with tank fire for an hour prior to the incident, the correspondent said.
The UN official gave a death toll of 16, while Gaza's emergency services spokesman put it at "dozens" after giving an initial count of 20.
An UNRWA spokesman said the agency condemned "in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces."
"Tens of thousands may soon be stranded in the streets of Gaza, without food, water and shelter if attacks on these areas continue," Chris Gunness said on Twitter.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said initial reports suggested that Palestinian militants fired mortar shells at Israeli soldiers from the vicinity of the school.
The Israeli army responded by firing back at the "origins of fire," the spokeswoman said.
"The incident is still being reviewed," she added.
Reports of the school shelling came as a Palestinian delegation prepared for a trip to Cairo to discuss a temporary humanitarian ceasefire.
The West Bank-headquartered Palestine Liberation Organization, which has been at odds with Hamas for years, said it had garnered the Islamist movement's support for a 24-hour truce, but did not say when that was due to start.
Israel's government had no comment on the proposal.
President Mahmoud Abbas "was in touch with (Hamas chief Khaled) Mashaal yesterday and today. He proposed the 24 hour truce, Mashaal and Hamas agreed", senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath told AFP on Tuesday.
International efforts have focused on getting Israel and Hamas to agree to a temporary humanitarian ceasefire, and then extending that truce for a longer period while they intensify efforts to end hostilities altogether.
But apart from a fragile halt on Saturday after which hostilities picked up with renewed vigour, efforts have failed.Children paying the price
Heavy Israeli bombardment of Gaza overnight Monday to Tuesday killed scores of Palestinians after they marked the beginning of the Muslim Eid festival, medics said.
Israel's aerial, naval and artillery shellings have killed some 1,262 Palestinians in the bloodiest conflict in six years, and the vast majority of Palestinian dead are civilians, according to the UN.
Hamas fire, including thousands of rockets launched at Israel, has killed 53 soldiers and three civilians.
Rights groups expressed growing alarm Tuesday at the number of children victims of the conflict.
The more than 240 children who have died represent at least 29 percent of civilian casualties, the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, said in a statement, adding that another six children in Israel had been wounded from Gaza rocket fire.
"We see children killed, injured, mutilated and burnt, in addition to being terrified to their core. The consequences run much deeper than previous flare-ups" in Gaza, UNICEF's Gaza field office chief Pernille Ironside said.Diplomatic push
Meanwhile world efforts to stop the fighting continued, but with neither side apparently willing to concede.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked for fresh help from America in trying to broker a ceasefire.
"Last night we talked, and the prime minister talked to me about an idea and a possibility of a ceasefire. He raised it with me, as he has consistently," Kerry said Tuesday.
The top US diplomat added that Netanyahu had said he "would embrace a ceasefire that permits Israel to protect itself against (Palestinian militants') tunnels and obviously not be disadvantaged for the great sacrifice they have made thus far."
There was no Israeli government comment.
PLO secretary general Yasser Abed Rabbo said after consultations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two main militant groups in Gaza, that there was "willingness for a ceasefire and humanitarian truce for 24 hours."
Hamas said so far it had not agreed to any new truce and was waiting for Israel to show its hand first.
"When we have an Israeli commitment ... on a humanitarian truce, we will look into it but we will never declare a truce from our side while the occupation keeps killing our children," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on Facebook.
As both sides appeared more determined than ever to keep up the fighting, the hostilities have pushed more than 215,000 people to flee their homes in the overcrowded territory, according to the World Health Organization.Ma'an staff contributed to this report.