Thousands of Palestinians flee northern Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Palestinian
residents of the northern Gaza Strip fled their homes on Sunday and
sought safety in U.N. shelters, heeding warnings from the Israeli
military about impending plans to bomb the area in the sixth day of an
offensive against Hamas that has killed more than 160 people.
The
fighting showed no signs of slowing, despite international calls for a
cease-fire and growing concerns about the mounting civilian death toll
in Gaza. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and voiced U.S. "readiness" to help restore
calm, while Egypt, a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, continued to
work behind the scenes.
Amid the diplomacy, Israel said it was
pushing forward with preparations for a possible ground invasion of
Gaza. Thousands of troops have massed along the border in recent days.
"We
don’t know when the operation will end," Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday. "It might take a long
time." He said the military was prepared "for all possibilities."
Israel
launched the offensive last Tuesday in what it said was a response to
heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. The military says it has
launched more than 1,300 airstrikes, while Palestinian militants have
launched more than 800 rockets at Israel. The Palestinian Health
Ministry in Gaza says 166 people have been killed, including dozens of
civilians. There have been no Israeli fatalities, though several people
have been wounded, including a teenage boy who was seriously wounded by
rocket shrapnel Sunday.
Early Sunday, the Israeli air force
dropped leaflets around the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia ordering
people to evacuate their homes. Israel says much of the rocket fire has
come from the area, and overnight Sunday, the military carried out a
brief ground operation on what it said was a rocket-launching site that
could not be struck from the air. Four Israeli soldiers were lightly
wounded before returning to Israeli.
The U.N. refugee agency for
Palestinians, UNRWA, said some 17,000 Palestinians had headed to special
shelters set up in 20 United Nations schools in Gaza.
"The fact
that in a span of almost a few hours, 10,000 people sought refuge in
these 15 schools is an indication to the difficult situation on the
ground," said Sami Mshasha, a UNRWA spokesman.
Some raced by in
pickup trucks, waving white flags. "Once we received the message, we
felt scared to stay in our homes. We want to leave," said one resident,
Mohammed Abu Halemah.
Shortly before nightfall, Israel carried out
a series of airstrikes in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia. Hamas’
Al-Aqsa TV station reported four airstrikes in a 10-minute span, and a
large plume of black smoke could be seen over the area from the Israeli
border. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Hamas, an
Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, has remained
defiant, and it continued to fire rockets into Israel throughout the
day. It urged people in northern Gaza to stay in their homes and has so
far rejected proposals for a cease-fire as unsatisfactory.
"They
want us to put down our arms and leave the resistance," said Moussa Abu
Marzouk, a top Hamas official, on his Facebook page. "They started the
battle, and we will stay on our land and fight to protect our future."
Despite
Israeli claims that it has inflicted heavy damage on the group, Hamas
says it is largely unscathed, and Palestinian medics say most of the
dead have been civilians.
The outbreak of violence follows the
kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank,
the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent
revenge attack, and wide-ranging Israeli moves against Hamas militants
and infrastructure in the West Bank. Hamas has demanded that hundreds of
recently arrested activists be freed as part of a cease-fire.
Many
of the airstrikes have been on the homes of wanted Hamas militants,
putting their families at risk. In an attack on Saturday, the target of
one such airstrike, Gaza’s police chief, survived, while 17 members of
his extended family were killed.
Israel accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s civilians as human shields, putting people in the densely populated
territory in danger.
"The
leadership of Hamas and the other organizations has chosen — at a time
when they are using the population of Gaza as human shields — to hide
under ground, to flee abroad and to deliberately put civilians in the
line of fire," Netanyahu said.
Despite Israel’s claims, the
international community, including many of Israel’s allies, have begun
to express concerns about the growing civilian death toll.
In
Vienna, Kerry spoke Sunday with Netanyahu and highlighted U.S. concerns
about the "escalating tensions," the State Department said.
Kerry
"described his engagement with leaders in the region to help to stop the
rocket fire so calm can be restored and civilian casualties prevented,
and underscored the United States’ readiness to facilitate a cessation
of hostilities," the State Department said.
Egypt, meanwhile, said
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke to the U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
El-Sissi’s spokesman quoted Ban as praising Egyptian efforts to halt the
fighting and affirming that "Egypt is the most capable party to
effectively participate in reaching a calm between the two sides."
Netanyahu’s office declined comment on diplomatic efforts.
Other
countries were also involved. Germany’s foreign minister said he would
head to the region on Monday, while French President Francois Holland
tried to rally Arab and Muslim leaders to push for a cease-fire.
Hollande
tried to rally other leaders to push for a cease-fire in Gaza, holding
telephone talks over the weekend with Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan and Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki.
Marzouki
spokesman Adnane Mancer said the French and Tunisian presidents agreed
that Marzouki would try to talk to Hamas leaders and urge a cease-fire,
while Hollande would try to do the same with other parties.
A French
presidential official said Hollande was talking to Israeli, Palestinian
and other Arab officials.
On Sunday, Palestinians with foreign
passports began leaving Gaza through the Erez border crossing. Israel,
which cooperated in the evacuation, said 800 Palestinians living in Gaza
have passports from countries including Australia, Britain and the U.S.
Rawan
Mohanna, a 21-year-old chemistry major at the University of Texas, said
she had arrived in Gaza with her family a month ago because her older
sister was getting married to a Gazan.
Mohanna, who lives in
Dallas, said her family is now returning to the U.S. with mixed feelings
because her newlywed sister and other relatives were staying behind.
"It’s bittersweet that we get to leave but they are still there and they can’t get out," she
said.
___
Federman
reported from Jerusalem. Angela Charlton in Paris, Kirsten Grieshaber
in Berlin, Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Barzak in Amman, Jordan,
and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.
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