Thousands of Gazans flee homes after Israeli warning as death toll rises

At least 160 dead on the sixth day of bombardments, say Palestinan officials


Thousands of Palestinians fled to United Nations facilities in the Gaza Strip seeking sanctuary after Israel warned them to leave their homes ahead of stepped-up strikes against rocket squads.

Palestinian officials said at least 160 people have been killed on the sixth day of bombardment.

About 4,000 Gazans have taken refuge in eight shelters run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, according to spokesman Chris Gunness.

The Israeli air force dropped leaflets this morning calling for the evacuation, suggesting an imminent attack after its troops earlier launched a brief raid.

Israel’s military spokesman said troops will begin a “short and temporary” campaign against northern Gaza.

The call comes after Israeli special forces launched a brief raid early today into northern Gaza to destroy what it described as a rocket-launching site. The military said four soldiers were slightly wounded in the operation. It was the first time that Israeli ground troops are known to have entered Gaza in the current offensive.

Ignoring international appeals for a ceasefire, Israel has widened its range of Gaza bombing targets to civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties.

Yesterday, Israel announced it would hit northern Gaza “with great force” to prevent rocket attacks from there on Israel. One of the Israeli strikes hit a centre for the disabled where Palestinians said two patients were killed and four people seriously hurt.

In a second attack, yesterday evening, an Israeli warplane flattened the home of Gaza’s police chief and damaged a nearby mosque as evening prayers ended, killing at least 18 people, officials said.

In New York, the UN Security Council called unanimously for a ceasefire, while Britain’s foreign minister said he will discuss ceasefire efforts with his American, French and German counterparts today.

So far, neither Israel nor Gaza’s Hamas rulers have signalled willingness to stop.

Israel has carried out more than 1,200 air strikes this week to try to diminish Hamas’ ability to fire rockets at Israel.

The chief military spokesman, Brigadier General Motti Almoz, said there would be more strikes, especially in northern Gaza near the Israeli border. “We are going to attack there with great force in the next 24 hours due to a very large concentration of Hamas efforts in that area,” he said.

The military said it was ordering Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate “for their own safety”.

Gaza’s interior ministry urged residents in the area to ignore Israel’s warnings and to stay in their homes, saying the announcement was Israeli “psychological warfare” and an attempt to create confusion.

Shortly after the Israeli announcement, an Israeli warplane struck the home of the Gaza police chief, Taysir al-Batsh, killing at least 18 people and wounding 50, said health ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra. He said worshippers were leaving the mosque after evening prayers at the time of the strike and that some people are believed to be trapped under the rubble.

Israel has launched more than 1,300 air strikes since the offensive began, said military spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner. Palestinian militants have launched more than 800 rockets at Israel, including 130 in the last 24 hours, the Israeli military said.

Israel has said it is acting in self-defence against rockets that have disrupted life across much of the country. It also accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s civilians as human shields by firing rockets from there.

In a sign that the conflict might widen, Israel fired into Lebanon late yesterday in response to two rockets fired from there at northern Israel. There were no injuries or damage.

Israel has said it is acting in self-defence against rockets that have disrupted life across much of the country. It also accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s civilians as human shields by firing rockets from there.

Critics said Israel’s heavy bombardment of one of the most densely populated territories in the world is itself the main factor putting civilians at risk.

Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that while using human shields violates international humanitarian law, “this does not give Israel the excuse to violate international humanitarian law as well”.

The Iron Dome, a US-funded, Israel-developed rocket defence system, has intercepted more than 130 incoming rockets, preventing any Israeli fatalities so far. A handful of Israelis have been wounded by rockets that slipped through.

Yesterday, air raid sirens went off in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel’s two largest cities, both located nearly 80km (50 miles) from Gaza.

Most of the rockets were intercepted or fell in open areas, though one landed near the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank. A house was damaged but there were no injuries.

The frequent rocket fire has disrupted daily life in Israel, particularly in southern communities that have absorbed the brunt of it.

Israelis mostly have stayed close to home. Television channels air non-stop coverage of the violence and radio broadcasts are interrupted live with every air raid siren warning of incoming rockets.

The frequent airstrikes have turned bustling Gaza City into a virtual ghost town during the normally festive month-long Ramadan holiday, emptying streets, closing shops and keeping hundreds of thousands of people close to home where they feel safest from the bombs.

The offensive marks the heaviest fighting since a similar eight-day campaign in November 2012 to stop Gaza rocket fire.

The outbreak of violence follows the kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, and the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack.

Israel has massed thousands of troops along the border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, with soldiers atop vehicles mobilised and ready to move if the order arrives.

At the United Nations, a Security Council statement approved by all 15 members calls for de-escalation of the violence, restoration of calm, and a resumption of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians aimed at achieving a comprehensive peace agreement based on a two-state solution.

The statement calls for “the reinstitution of the November 2012 ceasefire,” which was brokered by Egypt, but gives no time frame for when it should take effect.

The statement, which is not legally binding but reflects international opinion, is the first response by the UN’s most powerful body, which has been deeply divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In London, British foreign minister William Hague, a close Israeli ally, said he had spoken to his Israeli counterpart and called for an “immediate de-escalation” and expressed his “deep concern” about civilian casualties.

The Arab League said foreign ministers from member states will hold an emergency meeting in Cairo tomorrow.