Gaza, July 13 (Reuters): Thousands fled their homes in a Gaza Strip town today 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 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 10 neighbourhoods to get out of the town of 70,000 by midday on Sunday. UN officials said some 10,000 people had fled south to eight schools run by the world body in Gaza City.
A senior military officer, in a telephone briefing with foreign reporters, said Israel would “strike with might” in the Beit Lahiya area from the late evening hours on Sunday.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hostilities along the Israel-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.