GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) - The United Nations expressed outrage after another deadly strike on one of its schools on Sunday as Israel began pulling some troops from Gaza in a widely-acknowledged step towards unilateral withdrawal.
The strike killed 10 people at a school in the southern city of Rafah where around 3,000 Palestinians who had been made homeless by the violence had been sheltering, in the third such incident within 10 days.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon strongly condemned the shelling, calling it "a moral outrage and a criminal act". "This madness must stop," he said.
The strike on the school came as Palestinian factions gathered for truce talks with Egypt in Cairo and world powers voiced increasingly urgent calls for the warring sides to lay down their weapons. "The bloodshed needs to stop," said a statement signed by the European Union and the European Commission presidents on behalf of the bloc's 28 member states. "We deplore the terrible loss of lives, including innocent women and children," it said, condemning the "intolerable violence" being suffered by Gaza residents.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond demanded an unconditional ceasefire to resolve the "intolerable" situation for civilians. And in Cairo, China's top diplomat Wang Yi demanded both sides "immediately" halt their fire.
But there was little respite on the ground, where more than 71 people were killed in Rafah alone in a fresh wave of bloodshed which sent the death toll soaring over 1,800.
At the school, an AFP correspondent witnessed scenes of chaos, with rescuers trying to evacuate the wounded any way they could, while adults were seen sprinting frantically away through pools of blood, young children clutched in their arms.
With hospitals and clinics under increasing pressure from the bombardment and the soaring numbers of casualties, Gaza's medical services have reached the brink of collapse, the UN warned.
With Rafah's main Najjar hospital closed after being hit in a recent strike, only two clinics were functioning, with medics rapidly running out of space to store the growing pile of bodies.
In one, an AFP correspondent witnessed the bodies of four small children packed into an ice cream freezer.
Outside in the garden, doctors had set up a temporary emergency room, receiving dozens of wounded, some of whom had to lie down on the ground because of a lack of beds, he said.
There was only one working operating surgery, with the single bed occupied by two wounded people, he said.
Intensive international attempts to broker a diplomatic end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas have so far proved fruitless but the efforts are continuing with a Palestinian delegation in Cairo for talks with US and Egyptian officials.
But Israel did not send anyone to the talks after ministers at the security cabinet decided not to send a representative.
"We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late on Saturday.
"I don't plan on saying when we'll finish, we have no obligations apart from our security interests," he said in a speech seen as being the harbinger of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.
"Israel has taken the initiative into its hands," wrote Sima Kadmon in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.
"It will decide when and how to act, with what degree of force and against which targets... in other words: unilateral withdrawal of the IDF and a return to the same simple formula of 'quiet will be met with quiet'," she wrote.
Earlier on Sunday, the army confirmed it had begun withdrawing some troops from Gaza.
"We are removing some (forces)," Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner told AFP, saying troops were "extremely close" to completing a mission to destroy a network of attack tunnels.
"We are redeploying within the Gaza Strip, taking out other positions... so it won't be the same type of ground operation," he said, indicating it was "changing gear."
Witnesses had on Saturday reported seeing troops leaving Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra in the north as well as from villages east of Khan Yunis in the south.
And on Sunday, AFP correspondents reported seeing around a hundred tanks gathering in the border area outside Gaza where they had not been before, having just pulled out of the strip, while others could be seen driving away from the border.
Meanwhile, Israel on Sunday said that a soldier believed snatched by militants in Gaza on August 1, was dead.
Analysis of remains found in a tunnel near Rafah showed that they contained the DNA of the soldier, 23 year-old Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, the army said.
His funeral took place on Sunday afternoon.
The suspected kidnapping had triggered a brutal Israeli assault on Rafah and the surrounding area which left more than 200 people dead in just 26 hours, medics said.
Hamas's Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades acknowledged its militants had staged an ambush in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed, but denied holding Lt Goldin.