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Middle East

Israeli threat drives thousands of Gaza civilians from homes

Palestinians look at the damaged house of a cousin of Gaza police chief Taysir al-Batsh after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Sunday, July 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

GAZA/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel sharpened its campaign against Gaza Sunday, warning Palestinians in the north to flee after marines mounted a ground attack, as diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed intensified.

In four days, Israel has pummeled more than 1,000 targets in Gaza – twice the rate of the 2012 operation. Over 160 people have been killed in Gaza and more than 1,120 wounded. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said most of the victims were civilians, putting their number at more than 130, among them 35 children and 26 women.

Despite increasing calls for a cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was hitting Hamas “with growing force,” warning there was no end in sight.

“We do not know when this operation will end,” he told ministers.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Netanyahu to renew a U.S. offer to help mediate a truce and he “highlighted the U.S. concern about escalating tensions on the ground,” a senior State Department official said.

The top U.S. diplomat also told the Israeli leader that he was engaged with regional leaders “to help to stop the rocket fire so calm can be restored and civilian casualties prevented.”

The Israeli military told the 70,000 residents of the town of Beit Lahiya near Gaza’s northern border to get out by midday Sunday. Israel dropped leaflets over 10 neighborhoods in the town. They read: “Those who fail to comply with the instructions to leave immediately will endanger their lives and the lives of their families. Beware.”

The leaflets marked the first time Israel had warned Palestinians to vacate dwellings in such a wide area. Previous warnings, by phone or so-called “knock-on-the-door” missiles without explosive warheads, had been directed at individual homes slated for attack.

A senior military officer, in a telephone briefing with foreign reporters, said Israel would “strike with might” in the Beit Lahiya area.

He did not say if this would include an expansion of an air and naval offensive into a ground operation in the north of the narrow, densely populated Mediterranean enclave.

“The enemy has built rocket infrastructure in-between the houses [in Beit Lahiya],” the Israeli officer said. “He wants to trap me into an attack and into hurting civilians.”

At schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City, Beit Lahiya residents arrived in donkey carts filled with children, luggage and mattresses, while others came by car or taxi. One man, still in pajamas, said some inhabitants had received phone calls telling them to leave.

“What could we do? We had to run in order to save the lives of our children,” said Salem Abu Halima, 25, a father of two.

Over 17,000 people have taken refugee in UNRWA buildings, officials said.

Gaza’s Interior Ministry, in a statement on Hamas radio, dismissed Israel’s warnings as “psychological warfare.” It told those who left their homes to return and others to stay put.

A Palestinian woman and a girl aged 3 were killed in Israeli airstrikes early Sunday, the Health Ministry said.

Hundreds of mourners attended the funerals Sunday of the 17 Palestinians killed in Israel’s bombing, Saturday night, of the home of Gaza police chief Taysee Al-Batsh.

“With our souls and blood we will redeem the martyrs!” the crowd chanted as armed men fired in the air.

The Israeli military said it had appointed a general to investigate the high civilian toll in the Gaza strikes.

President Mahmoud Abbas said he would ask U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to “put the State of Palestine under the U.N. international protection system” in order to address the violence in Gaza.

Despite intensified Israeli military action – which included a commando raid overnight – Palestinians continued to launch rockets across the border.Giving details of the raid, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said four members of the force were wounded in skirmishes with Gaza gunmen but the rocket launching site they attacked was hit.

Hamas said its fighters had fired at the Israeli force offshore, preventing them from landing. Lerner said the forces had “completed their mission.”

A long-range burst Sunday triggered air raid sirens and sent people running for shelter at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, which has not been struck in the hostilities and where flights have been operating normally, and some city suburbs.

No one has been killed by the more than 800 rockets Israel says have been fired since the offensive began.Many of the rockets have fallen wide. Others have been shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors.

A rocket fired from Syria hit the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights Sunday, falling on open ground and causing no casualties, an army spokeswoman told AFP.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 14, 2014, on page 1.

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