GAZA CITY, Gaza - France and Egypt announced an initiative to stop the fighting in Gaza late Tuesday, hours after Israeli mortar shells exploded near a UN school sheltering hundreds of people displaced by the onslaught on Hamas militants. At least 30 Palestinians died, staining streets with blood.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner released no details of the ceasefire plan, saying at the UN Security Council that the presidents of his country and Egypt were awaiting a response from Israel.
Israeli officials in Jerusalem declined immediate comment on the announcement, which came amid diplomatic efforts by the United States and other countries to resolve a conflict between Israel and the Islamic militants of Hamas that has seen 600 people killed in 11 days.
U.S. president-elect Barack Obama broke his silence on the crisis Tuesday, saying that "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern for me." He declined to go further, reiterating his stance that the United States has only one president at a time.
Israel's military said its shelling at the school - the deadliest single episode since Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza on Saturday after a week of air bombardment - was a response to mortar fire from within the school and said Hamas militants were using civilians as cover.
Two residents of the area who spoke with The Associated Press by telephone said they saw a small group of militants firing mortar rounds from a street near the school, where 350 people had gathered to get away from the shelling. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Majed Hamdan, an AP photographer, rushed to the scene shortly after the attacks. At the hospital, he said, many children were among the dead.
"I saw women and men - parents - slapping their faces in grief, screaming, some of them collapsed to the floor. They knew their children were dead," he said. "In the morgue, most of the killed appeared to be children. In the hospital, there wasn't enough space for the wounded."
He said there appeared to be marks on the pavement of five separate explosions in area of the school.
An Israeli defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to make the information public, said it appeared the military used 120-mm shells, among the largest mortar rounds.
UN officials demanded an investigation of the shelling. The carnage, which included 55 wounded, added to a surging civilian toll and drew mounting international pressure for Israel to end the offensive against Hamas.
At UN headquarters, Kouchner said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had proposed a plan for ending the fighting. He said it would bring together the main parties, including the Palestinian Authority, to take "all measures" to end the conflict, including the key issues of protecting Gaza's borders and reopening all crossings.
"We are awaiting the Israeli response and we harbour hope that it will be a positive one," Kouchner said.
Asked about Kouchner's statement, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, told AP: "We are holding off comments on that for the time being."
Israeli officials have said that any ceasefire agreement must prevent further rocket attacks by Gaza militants and put in place measures to prevent the smuggling of missile and other weapons into the small Palestinian territory.
Earlier at the UN, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli bombardment of the group's facilities in Gaza "totally unacceptable." Israel's shells have fallen around three schools, including the girls school hit Tuesday, and a health centre for Palestinian refugees.
Ban added that it was "equally unacceptable" for militants to take actions that endanger Palestinian civilians.
Some 15,000 Palestinians have packed the UN's 23 Gaza schools because their homes were destroyed or to flee the violence. The UN provided the Israeli military with GPS co-ordinates for all of them.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss ideas of stopping the fighting. Arab countries were floating a proposed UN resolution calling for an immediate end to all military action and deployment of an international observer force to monitor a ceasefire and protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
In the wake of the criticism over civilian casualties, Israel agreed to set up a "humanitarian corridor" to ship vital supplies into the Gaza Strip, an idea that had been raised by the UN Security Council. Under the plan, Israel would suspend attacks in certain areas to allow people to get supplies.
The three mortar shells that crashed down on the perimeter of the UN school struck at mid-afternoon, when many people in the densely populated camp were outside getting some fresh air, thinking an area around a school was safe.
Images recorded by a cameraman from AP Television News showed crowds fleeing the scene, pavements smeared with blood and battered bodies of the dead being carried off by medics and horrified bystanders. A youth who limped away from the scene was helped along by several others. Sandals were scattered on the pavement by a pock-marked wall.
Gaza's main hospital has been overwhelmed with wounded innocents. Mortar fire, in particular, is far less accurate than the laser-guided aerial bombs that Israel has used throughout the campaign.
The UN agency that runs the school along with other programs for Palestinian refugees said two other UN schools were struck by Israeli fire since Monday night. In the first incident, an air strike on the Asma Elementary School in Gaza City killed three men who were among more than 400 people taking refuge in the building. In the other, an artillery shell landed inside an empty boys school in Jebaliya.
"There's nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized," said John Ging, head of Gaza operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
The episode is certain to add to the urgency of truce efforts by leaders from Europe and the Middle East.
"I sincerely hope that for the sake of those who have died that it will not have been in vain, that it will spur everybody into more immediate action to get this ceasefire agreed and just stop horrific violence," Ging said.
An Israeli military statement said it received intelligence that the dead at the girls school included Hamas operatives, among them members of a rocket launching cell. It identified two of them as Imad Abu Askar and Hassan Abu Askar.
Two residents who spoke to an AP reporter by phone said the two brothers were known to be low-level Hamas militants. They said a group of militants - one of them said four - were firing mortar shells from near the school.
An Israeli shell targeted the men, but missed and they fled, the witnesses said, refusing to allow their names to be published because they feared for their safety. Then another three shells landed nearby, exploding among civilians, they said.
Palestinian militants have frequently fired from residential areas in the past.
Ging said the UN agency's staff work to prevent militants from entering the schools it has opened to shelter those at risk.
"Unfortunately tonight's incident is just another example of how Hamas operates," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. "This is not the first time they have exploited a UN facility. This is not the first time that they have deliberately used innocent civilians as human shields."
A total of 71 Palestinians were killed Tuesday - with just two confirmed as militants, health officials in Gaza said.
Dr. Bassam Abu Warda, director of Kamal Adwan Hospital, said 36 people were killed, while the United Nations confirmed 30 deaths.