Thousands Flee Gaza Homes Under Israel Threat

Thousands fled their homes in a Gaza town on Sunday after Israel warned them to leave ahead of threatened attacks on rocket-launching sites, on the sixth day of an offensive that Palestinian officials said has killed at least 160 people.

"Those who fail to comply with the instructions will endanger their lives and the lives of their families. Beware," read a leaflet dropped by the Israeli military in the town of Beit Lahiya, near the border with Israel.

Despite intensified Israeli military action -- which included a commando raid overnight in what was Israel's first reported ground action in Gaza during the current fighting -- militants continued to launch rocket after rocket across the border.

Commandos targeted what Israel called a rocket-launching site. Authorities said four Israeli soldiers were slightly wounded during an exchange of gunfire with Palestinian fighters.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appearing on CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday, discussed Israel's goals for the offensive, but not the intended methods to achieve them.

"Our goal is to achieve sustainable quiet and security for our people, and we are doing that by degrading Hamas and other terror capabilities. I am not going to say right now how or when that goal will be achieved," Netanyahu said.

Neither Israel nor Palestinian militants show signs of agreeing to a cease-fire, despite calls by the United Nations Security Council and others to end the increasingly bloody offensive that has claimed at least 160 Palestinian lives and injuring about 1,000.

Several Israeli citizens have been wounded, but no one killed, by Palestinian rockets, which are being launched at longer range than in previous conflicts. Israeli defense forces credit their Iron Dome missile defense system, which intercepts rockets in mid-air, with preventing greater casualties.

With Israel massing tanks and soldiers at Gaza's borders, some fear that could signal a wider ground offensive that would cause heavy casualties.

Israeli soldiers stand atop a tank at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip on July 13, 2014. /Reuters Israeli soldiers stand atop a tank at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip on July 13, 2014. /Reuters

◆ Hundreds of Airstrikes

Israel has launched more than 1,300 airstrikes since the offensive began, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Sunday.

Palestinian militants have launched more than 800 rockets at Israel, including 130 in the last 24 hours, the Israeli military said Sunday.

Israeli leaflets dropped on Beit Lahiya, where 70,000 Palestinians live, said civilians in three of its 10 neighborhoods were "requested to evacuate their residences" and move south, deeper into the Gaza Strip, by 12 p.m. (0900 GMT).

The Gaza Interior Ministry, in a statement on Hamas radio, dismissed the Israeli warnings as "psychological warfare" and instructed those who left their homes to return and others to stay put.

The warnings cited roads that residents could use safely and said Israeli forces intended to attack "every area from where rockets are being launched."

It was not clear whether the possible attack would be confined to stepped-up airstrikes or whether it might include a sizeable ground offensive - something that Israel has so far been reluctant to undertake.

It was the first time Israel had warned Palestinians to vacate dwellings in such a wide area.

Previous warnings, by telephone or so-called "knock-on-the-door" missiles without explosive warheads, had been directed at individual homes slated for attack.

◆ Thousands flee

At least 4,000 people fled Beit Lahiya and crowded into eight U.N.-run schools in Gaza City on Sunday, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said.

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 his pajamas, said some inhabitants had received phone calls warning them to clear out.

"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.

Many foreign nationals and Palestinians with duel nationalities are leaving the Gaza Strip.

Israel also continued its airstrikes, targeting areas across Gaza early Sunday, ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire as the conflict entered its sixth day.

"We don't know when the operation will end," Netanyahu told a Cabinet meeting Sunday. "It might take a long time."

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

Overnight, an Israel strike overnight flattened the home of the Gaza police chief, killing at least 18 people in the deadliest attack since Israel launched its offensive on Gaza Tuesday.

The strike also badly damaged a nearby mosque, wounding scores of people.  Some worshippers are still believed to be trapped in the rubble.

An earlier airstrike Saturday also hit a mosque. Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson Lieutenant Libby Weiss said the building was being used by Hamas militants.

"It's important to note that this was a mosque that was used almost entirely for Hamas operations. Meaning as a structure perhaps, yes it was a mosque, but it was very clear that it was being used, and I would say almost hijacked by Hamas for terror purposes," Weiss said.

The United Nations humanitarian affairs office has said 135 of the 160 Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes since operations began have been civilians.

Netanyahu said Friday Israel is considering all military options despite international calls for a cease-fire.

With the worsening situation in Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he has appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for "international protection" for the Palestinian people.

VOA News / Jul. 14, 2014 08:14 KST