Israeli forces shelled the United Nations headquarters in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, setting the compound on fire as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was in the area on a mission to end Israel's devastating offensive against the territory's Hamas rulers. Ban expressed "outrage" over the incident.
Even as a top Israeli envoy went to Egypt to discuss a cease-fire proposal, the military pushed further into Gaza in an apparent effort to step up pressure on Hamas. Ground forces thrust deep into a crowded neighborhood for the first time, sending terrified residents fleeing for cover. Shells also struck a hospital, five high-rise apartment buildings and a building housing media outlets in Gaza City, injuring several journalists.
Bullets also entered another building housing The Associated Press offices, entering a room where two staffers were working but wounding no one. The Foreign Press Association, representing journalists covering Israel and the Palestinian territories, demanded a halt to attacks on press buildings.
The army has collected the locations of media organizations to avoid such attacks.
Israel launched its war on Dec. 27 in an effort to stop militant rocket fire from Gaza that has terrorized hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Some 1,100 Palestinians have been killed, roughly half of them civilians, according to U.N. and Palestinian medical officials. Thirteen Israelis also have died. Israel says it will press ahead until it receives guarantees of a complete halt to rocket fire and an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza from neighboring Egypt.
Israeli envoy Amos Gilad traveled to Cairo on Thursday to discuss truce prospects with Egypt, which has been serving as the key mediator. Israel also sent a senior diplomat to Washington to discuss international guarantees that Hamas will not rearm.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said there was "momentum" in negotiations and Israel was hopeful that a deal on its terms was "close and attainable."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, visiting soldiers on a southern base, said the fighting would continue, but Israel's eyes were "also open to the possibility of winding up this operation and consummating Israel's exceptional results and accomplishments through diplomacy."
Ban, who arrived in Israel on Thursday morning from Egypt, said he was "outraged" by the attack on the U.N. headquarters.
"I conveyed my strong protest and outrage to the defense minister and foreign minister and demanded a full explanation," Ban said. He said Barak told him there had been a "grave mistake" and promised to pay extra attention to protecting U.N. installations.
The U.N. compound in Gaza had only that morning become a makeshift shelter for hundreds of Gaza City residents seeking sanctuary from relentless Israeli shelling, a U.N. official in Gaza said.
"These were people who were scared. They rushed into the nearest U.N. facility," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he not authorized to talk to the media.
But shortly after, a shell hit the school, wounding three people, he said. Two other shells hit a warehouse housing humanitarian supplies and a U.N. parking lot, he added.
The U.N. compound houses the U.N. Works and Relief Agency, which distributes food aid to hundreds of thousands of destitute Gazans in the tiny seaside territory of 1.4 million people.
U.N. spokesmen confirmed that at least three people were wounded, but said the fire and smoke engulfing the compound made it impossible to know if it had been completely evacuated.
U.N. spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said the U.N. had given Israel the coordinates of the building, and the compound was also clearly marked with U.N. flags and logos. Large stocks of food and fuel used to supply hospital and water pumps was at risk of destruction, as were valuable U.N. archives dating back to 1948, Abu Hasna said.
The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Hours earlier, thousands of residents had fled their homes with the advance of Israeli ground troops into Gaza City's Tel Hawwa neighborhood. Many were clad only in their pajamas, and some were wheeling elderly parents in wheelchairs, one of them with an oxygen tank. Others stopped journalists' armored cars and ambulances pleading for someone to take them to a U.N. compound or to relatives' homes.
Rasha Hassam, a 25-year-old engineer, ran out of her apartment building carrying her screaming, crying, 6-year-old daughter, Dunia.
"God help us, God help us, where can we flee?" she cried. "All I want is to get my poor child away from here. We want to survive."
Thousands of others were trapped in Tel Hawwa's high-rise buildings by the fire, too afraid to even attempt to flee.
Three shells hit the Al Quds hospital in the neighborhood, setting its pharmacy building ablaze, trapping about 400 patients and staff inside the main hospital building, said Khaled Abu Zeid, a medic inside the building reached on his mobile phone. Gunfire was also reported around the building. It was not clear how many people inside had been wounded in the fighting.
In the nearby downtown area, Israeli tanks fired shells at five high-rise buildings, Palestinian witnesses said.
Israeli defense officials said the intensified assault on Gaza City was not a prelude to a new phase of all-out urban warfare in the narrow alleyways of Gaza's big cities, where Hamas militants are more familiar with the lay of the land and Israeli casualties would be liable to spiral. The aim, they said, was to heat up the pressure on Hamas to accede to Israel's demands.
"I think Israel is seeking in the last moments to escalate the military operation to pressure the parties," said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas official. "I don't think this will change the issues on the table."
The intensified assault on Gaza City highlighted the urgency of diplomatic efforts, the most high-profile being the arrival in the region of Ban, who was meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Thursday. Last week, the U.N. Security Council passed a cease-fire resolution that Hamas and Israel have ignored.
Ban met on Thursday with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and afterward put the onus on the Israeli government.
"We have some elements now in place which may allow a cease fire to come fairly soon," he told a news conference. "I hope so, but that depends on the political will of the Israeli government."
He said a full-fledged truce agreement did not have to be worked out before violence ceased.
"You can discuss terms and conditions later, my demand is to cease firing immediately," he said, acknowleging that he had come "with a heavy heart" at what he called a "difficult time for Israel."
"I'm well aware that rockets have been fired at Israeli civilians for years from Gaza," he said. "I have always condemned these as acts of terrorism and said they must cease."
Rocket fire has fallen off dramatically but not ceased and on Thursday the military reported 14 firings.
Ban will also meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, where Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas governs. He will not visit Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since it expelled forces loyal to Abbas in June 2007. The international community does not recognize Hamas' government.
Egypt has been pressing both sides to accept a 10-day truce while details of a more comprehensive accord can be worked out. Under the Egyptian proposal, Hamas would back off its demand that Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza and borders be opened immediately as part of any halt in fighting.
Instead, Israeli forces would remain in place during the 10-day period until details on border security are worked out, Egyptian and Palestinian officials close to the talks told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details of the closed-door negotiations.
A senior Israeli official said it was far from certain Israel would accept the deal. He said Israel was afraid Hamas would not respect a cease-fire as long as troops were in Gaza.
In Damascus, Hamas deputy chief Moussa Abou Marzouk told Al-Arabiya television that Hamas demands an immediate cease-fire, to be followed by Israeli troop withdrawal and the opening of the border for humanitarian aid.
A long-term truce would be discussed later, Marzouk said.
Barzak reported from Gaza City; Teibel from Jerusalem. Associated Press correspondents Salah Nasrawi and Sarah El Deeb contributed from Cairo.