GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli artillery shells tore through the walls of a U.N. school crowded with sleeping war refugees and back-to-back explosions rocked a market filled with shoppers Wednesday as Israel's stepped up campaign against Gaza's Hamas rulers claimed at least 116 Palestinian lives.
After the strikes near the shopping area in Gaza City, bodies lay scattered in the streets as the wounded screamed for help. "Where is the ambulance?" one man moaned as he lay on the blood-soaked ground.
Some 3,300 Gazans seeking refuge from the fighting had been crammed into the U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp when a series of Israeli artillery shells hit before daybreak, turning a classroom where families had been sleeping into a tragic scene of bloodied clothing, bedding and debris.
One of those who had sought shelter from the fighting at the Jebaliya school was Assad Sabah, a father of five. He said his family had been huddling under desks in one of the classrooms because of the constant sound of tank fire throughout the night when suddenly mayhem struck.
"We were scared to death," he said. "After 4:30 a.m., tanks started firing more. Three explosions shook the school. One classroom collapsed over the head of the people who were inside."
Palestinian health officials said at least 17 people were killed and 90 wounded in the school attack — the latest in a series of strikes the United Nations says has hit U.N. facilities that are supposed to be safe zones in the 23-day-old war.
"Where will we go next?" wailed 56-year-old Aishe Abu Darabeh, sitting dazed outside a classrom after the shelling. "We fled and they are following us."
Israel's military said no U.N. facility had been intentionally targeted during Wednesday's operation, but troops had responded to Hamas mortar fire directed at Israeli soldiers near the school.
However, the chief of the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees expressed "anger and indignation" at Israeli forces firing toward a U.N. facility even after being told 17 times, including just hours before the attack, that it was filled with civilians.
Israel had to do more to ensure the safety of Gaza's civilians, Pierre Kraehenbuehl told The Associated Press.
"Enough is enough," he said, noting that six U.N. schools have been hit since the fighting began.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the shelling of the school "outrageous" and "unjustifiable," and demanded an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas.
"Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children," the U.N. chief said.
At least 116 Palestinians were killed Wednesday, including 16 in the shopping area, while the overall Palestinian death toll since July 8 climbed to 1,361, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra.
The Israeli military said three of its soldiers were killed when a booby-trapped house collapsed after they identified an entrance to a Hamas tunnel inside. In all, 56 soldiers have been killed, as well as two Israeli civilians and a Thai citizen working in Israel.
Wednesday marked a second day of particularly heavy Israeli air and artillery attacks — at a time when Egyptian cease-fire efforts appeared to be stalling. Israeli media said late Wednesday that Israel's Security Cabinet decided to press forward with the operation.
Egyptian officials, meanwhile, met with an Israeli envoy about Israel's conditions for a cease-fire, including disarming Hamas, according to a high-ranking Egyptian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss delicate diplomatic efforts.