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Israeli mortar shells killed as many as 40 Palestinians, among them women and children, outside a U.N. school in Gaza on Tuesday where they were taking refuge from 11 days of fierce fighting. The Israeli military contended that Hamas fighters had fired mortars from the school compound, and U.N. officials called for an independent inquiry into the incident.

But the rising civilian death toll in crowded Gaza heightened international urgency to end the combat. American and European diplomats said it was highly likely that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, which has said it would not end the operation until it crushed Hamas’ capacity to fire rockets into its civilian areas, would travel to Egypt on Wednesday to discuss a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, Hamas continued to fire off rockets despite the large numbers of Israeli troops on the fourth day of the ground operation in Gaza. One rocket reached farther than ever into Israeli territory, only 20 miles from Tel Aviv, and wounded an infant.

With another day of gory news reports being repeatedly flashed around the Arab world, Israel contended that the deaths at the school demonstrated Hamas’ callousness to the lives of the Palestinians’ own civilians: The Israeli Defense Force said it was responding to mortar shells from the school compound, in the packed and militant Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, and fired several mortar rounds near the school.

“They shot back to save their own lives,” said Ilan Tal, an Israeli military spokesman and a brigadier general in the reserves. Among the dead, the military said in a statement, were “Hamas terrorist operatives and a mortar battery cell.” The military identified two Hamas operatives, Imad Abu Asker and Hassan Abu Asker, as having been killed.

A young witness from Jabaliya, Ibrahim Amen, 16, said that he had seen one of the militants, whom he identified as Abu Khaled Abu Asker, in the area of the school right before the attack.

Ibrahim said he saw the militant after he had responded to calls for volunteers to pile sand around the camp “to help protect the resistance fighters.” Ibrahim went to pile sand near the school with his brother, Iyad, 20, who was then injured by the Israeli mortar fire.

U.N. officials were unable to immediately determine the accuracy of the Israeli army’s statements.