According to Reuters, thousands fled their homes in a Gaza Strip town on Sunday (July 13) after Israel warned them to leave before it attacked rocket-launching sites, on the sixth day of an offensive that Palestinian officials said has killed at least 160 people.
Militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza kept up rocket salvoes deep into the Jewish state as the worst bout of Israel-Palestinian bloodshed in two years showed no signs of abating, and as Western foreign ministers said a ceasefire was an urgent priority.
Israel dropped leaflets into the town of Beit Lahiya near Gaza's northern border. 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 Israeli military told the residents of three of Beit Lahiya's ten neighborhoods to get out of the town of 70,000 by mid-day on Sunday. UN officials said some 10,000 people had fled south to eight schools run by the world body in Gaza City.
The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 160 Palestinians, among them about 135 civilians, including 30 children, have died during six days of warfare, and more than 1,000 hurt.
COMMENT: It should be clarified that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have exercised extreme restraint and displayed prior notice of its intentions vis-à-vis Palestinian-occupied areas.
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, causing them to be needlessly sacrificed in Hamas' name.
Hostilities along the Israeli-Gaza frontier first intensified last month after Israeli forces arrested hundreds of Hamas activists in the Israeli-occupied West Bank following the abduction there of three Jewish seminary students who were later found killed.
A Palestinian youth was then killed in Jerusalem in a suspected revenge attack by Israelis. Despite intensified Israeli military action, which included a commando raid overnight, Palestinians continued to launch hundreds of rockets across the border into Israel.
No one has been killed by the more than 800 rockets Israel says have been fired since the offensive began. Lacking guidance systems, many of the rockets have fallen wide. Others have been shot down by Israel's Iron Dome interceptors.
"We will continue to act with patience, forbearance, with determination, responsibility and aggression to achieve the goal of the campaign - restoring calm for a long period by dealing a significant blow to Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in broadcast after his cabinet met.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will travel to the Middle East on Monday and Tuesday for meetings with Netanyahu and US-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who agreed to a power-sharing deal with his Hamas rivals in April.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose bid to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace fell apart when Netanyahu called off negotiations over the Abbas-Hamas pact, reasserted Washington's support for Israel's right to self-defense on Sunday.
Israel has been publicly cool to truce proposals from the West, saying its current assault on Hamas is the best guarantee of long-term peace. Israel says an invasion of Gaza remains an option and has mobilized more than 30,000 reservists, but most attacks have so far been from the air, hitting some 1,200 targets.
A survey by Israel's Channel 10 found that 90% of the country's Jewish majority supported the air offensive. Asked if Israel should send in ground forces, 47% said yes, 32% said no, and 21% were undecided.
The Israeli military said it had appointed a general to investigate the high civilian toll in several Gaza strikes.