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Airstrike hits UN school in Gaza as Israeli troops start redeploying along border

Ten people were killed in Gaza Sunday after a United Nations school sheltering displaced people was hit in an airstrike, as Israel withdrew most of its ground troops from the area and announced that it will hold its fire for seven hours Monday.

The Israeli military said they were investigating the strike and confirmed it was redeploying along the Gaza border for a "new phase" of an operation aimed at stopping rocket fire toward Israel and destroying Hamas' underground tunnel network.

The military added that it will hold fire for seven hours in parts of the Gaza Strip beginning at 10 a.m. Monday, but not in areas where troops are still operating.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said the bulk of ground troops had been pulled out of Gaza after the military concluded it had destroyed most of the tunnel network.

He said Israel had detected some 30 tunnels that were dug along the border for what he called a "synchronized attack" on Israel.

"We've caused substantial damage to this network to an extent where we've basically taken this huge threat and made it minimal," he said. The army had thousands of troops in Gaza at the height of the operation.

In southern Israel, armored vehicles could be seen rolling slowly onto the back of large flatbed trucks near the Gaza border, while soldiers folded flags from atop a tank and rolled up their belongings and sleeping bags.

The Wall Street Journal, citing witnesses, reported that Israeli tanks began to pull back toward the border late Saturday.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Netanyahu's government is divided on what course to take following the completion of the tunnel operation. Some have pushed for a continuation of the all-out offensive, known as Operation Protective Edge. Others believe the best course is to end the offensive, keep a blockade operated jointly with Egypt in place, and mobilize international opinion to convince Hamas to disarm.

A former Israeli security official told The Journal that Netanyahu's government would have three days to decide their next move after the completion of the tunnel operation, while Israeli forces would redeploy to the border regions.  

In Gaza on Sunday, Israeli airstrikes and tank shelling continued. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 10 people were killed and 35 wounded after the strike near the boys' school in Rafah. Robert Turner, the director of operations for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, said preliminary findings indicated the blast was an Israeli airstrike near the school, which had been providing shelter for some 3,000 people. He said the strike killed at least one U.N. staffer.

"The locations of all these installations have been passed to the Israeli military multiple times," Turner said. "They know where these shelters are. How this continues to happen, I have no idea. I have no words for it. I don't understand it."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack near the Rafah school as both "a moral outrage and a criminal act."

"This attack, along with other breaches of international law, must be swiftly investigated and those responsible held accountable," the U.N. chief said.

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki also criticized the airstrike.

“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which at least ten more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed,” Psaki said in a statement.

At least six U.N. facilities, including schools sheltering the displaced, have been struck by Israeli fire since the conflict began, drawing international condemnation. In each earlier case, Israel has said it was responding to militants launching rockets or other attacks from nearby

In nearly four weeks of fighting, Palestinian health officials say more than 1,750 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed. Nearly 70 Israelis, almost all soldiers, have been killed.

Israel launched an aerial campaign in Gaza on July 8 to try to halt Palestinian rocket fire on major cities, and later sent in troops to dismantle Hamas' cross-border tunnels that have been used to carry out attacks.

Artillery shells slammed into two high-rise office buildings Sunday in downtown Gaza City and large explosions could be heard seconds apart, police and witnesses said. Al-Kidra said more than 50 Palestinians were killed Sunday, including 10 members of one family in a single strike in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel said it carried out 180 strikes Sunday.

In Cairo, Egyptian and Palestinian negotiators held talks over a potential cease-fire. After accusing Hamas of repeatedly violating humanitarian cease-fire arrangements, Israel said it would not attend the talks and there was "no point" negotiating with the Islamic militant group

Hamas official Izzat al-Rishq said the Israelis will have to either withdraw unilaterally or accept a political agreement that addresses Hamas' demands.

Hamas has said it will not stop fighting until Israel and Egypt lift their blockade of Gaza, imposed after the Islamic militant group overran the territory in 2007. Large swaths of Gaza have been destroyed and some 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since the war began.

In a televised address late Saturday, Netanyahu warned Hamas they would pay an "intolerable price" if militants continued to fire rockets at Israel and that all options remain on the table.

From an Israeli perspective, the advantage of a unilateral pullout or troop redeployment to the strip's fringes is that it can do so on its own terms, rather than becoming entangled in negotiations with Hamas. However, a unilateral pullback does not address the underlying causes of cross-border tensions and carries the risk of a new flare-up of violence in the future.

Rocket fire continued toward Israel Sunday. More than 3,000 rockets have been fired since the war began, which have killed three civilians and damaged several homes. Several soldiers have been killed in the current round of fighting by Palestinian gunmen who popped out of tunnels near Israeli communities along the Gaza border.

The Israeli military death toll rose to 64 after Israel announced that Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old infantry lieutenant feared captured in Gaza, was actually killed in battle. His funeral is later Sunday.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon revealed on his Facebook page Sunday that he is a distant relative of Goldin and had known him his whole life. The information was previously kept under wraps while Goldin was feared to be abducted.

Israel had earlier said it feared Goldin had been captured by Hamas militants Friday near Rafah in an ambush that shattered an internationally brokered cease-fire and was followed by heavy Israeli shelling that left dozens of Palestinians dead.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Click for more from The Wall Street Journal.

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