GAZA CITY?Almost a third of the 689 Palestinians killed in Israel's Gaza offensive are children, with most killed since the start of a ground offensive after a week of aerial bombardments, medics said Wednesday.
The proportion of civilians killed has risen dramatically since ground troops on Saturday joined the assault on the Hamas rulers of Gaza after a week of aerial and naval bombardments.
A total of 220 children have been killed since Operation Cast Lead was unleashed on December 27, according to Gaza emergency services chief Moawiya Hassanein.
Humanitarian agencies fear civilian casualties will rise further as the battle moves into the most densely populated areas of Gaza, one of the most crowded places on Earth.
"Of increasing concern is the number of children and their families fleeing the fighting and bombardment or seeking refuge because their homes have been destroyed or damaged," the Save the Children agency said on Wednesday.
Civilians have nowhere to flee from the conflict. The borders are sealed off under an 18-month-old Israeli blockade and buildings designated by the United Nations as safe shelters have been hit in the artillery shelling.
On Tuesday, at least 43 people sheltering at a school in northern Gaza were killed, according to emergency services.
The Israeli army said troops had apparently responded to mortar fire from within the school compound, but the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA which runs the school said it was "99.9 percent sure" there were no militants in the compound.
Israel says Hamas is to blame for all civilian deaths, claiming they used women and children as human shields by firing rockets at Israel and attacking troops from densely populated areas, where they also store their weapons.
The United Nations has called Hamas attacks "indiscriminate" and the Israeli response "excessive" and urged both sides to end the violence.