GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories - Israel said on Thursday it would not pull troops from Gaza until they finish destroying a network of cross-border tunnels, despite sharp United Nations criticism over the civilian death toll.
Speaking at the start of a special cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not accept any ceasefire that did not allow troops to continue destroying tunnels used by militants for attacking Israel.
"Until now, we have destroyed dozens of terror tunnels and we are determined to finish this mission - with or without a ceasefire," he said at the start of a special cabinet meeting.
"So I will not accept any (truce) proposal that does not allow the IDF (army) to complete this work for the security of Israel's citizens." His remarks came after the army confirmed mobilising another 16,000 additional reservists, hiking the total number called up to 86,000. Israel does not say how many troops are currently engaged in the fighting inside the Gaza Strip.
And Washington said it had agreed to restock Israel's dwindling supplies of ammunition, despite increasing international concern over the death toll in Gaza, where more than 1,374 people have been killed in 24 days of violence.
UN figures indicate two-thirds of the victims were civilians. Of that civilian dead, nearly half were women and children.
Following the shelling of a UN school in northern Gaza on Wednesday which killed 16, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay slammed Israel for its attacks on homes, schools and hospitals, accusing it of "deliberate defiance" of international law.
"None of this appears to me to be accidental," she told reporters.
"There appears to be deliberate defiance of obligations that international law imposes on Israel." The shelling of the school also drew sharp condemnation from UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who described it as "reprehensible", as well as from Washington.
But the Israeli army suggested the deaths may have been the result of a misfired Palestinian rocket.
"What happened is still not clear at this stage," military spokesman General Moti Almoz told army radio.
"It is not clear if the school was hit by fire from IDF soldiers or from Hamas terrorists," he said.
Despite rising international calls for a halt to the bloodshed, the Israeli security cabinet decided Wednesday to press on with the operation in Gaza just hours after troops had made a significant advance into the narrow enclave.
The Israeli offensive began on July 8 with the aim of ending militant rocket fire, but expanded on July 17 with a ground operation aimed at destroying a sophisticated network of tunnels leading under the border, which Israel has vowed to dismantle.
Major General Sami Turgeman, head of the army's southern command, said Wednesday that the army was "just days" away from completing its mission to destroy the tunnels.