Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early on Sunday as its military warned northern Gaza residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening campaign against militant rocket fire that’s killed more than 160 Palestinians.
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 six-day offensive. With Israel massing tanks and soldiers at Gaza’s borders, some fear that could signal a wider ground offensive that would cause heavy casualties.
Early Sunday, Israeli troops launched a brief raid into northern Gaza to destroy what it described as a rocket-launching site, an operation the military said left four soldiers slightly wounded.
The Israeli air force later dropped leaflets warning residents to evacuate their homes ahead of what Israel’s military spokesman described as a ‘‘short and temporary’’ campaign against northern Gaza to begin sometime after 12pm local time. The area is home to some 100,000 people.
It was not clear whether the 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.
Ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire, Israel widened its range of Gaza bombing targets Saturday to include civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties. One strike hit a center for the disabled, killing two patients and wounding four people. In a second attack, an Israeli warplane flattened the home of Gaza police chief Taysir al-Batsh and damaged a nearby mosque as evening prayers ended, killing at least 18 people and wounding 50, officials said.
On Sunday, Palestinians with foreign passports began leaving Gaza through the Erez border crossing. Israel, which is cooperating in the evacuation, says 800 Palestinians living in Gaza have passports from countries including Australia, the United Kingdom and the US.
US citizen Ahmed Mohana said he had mixed feelings about leaving friends and family behind in the troubled Gaza Strip.
‘‘It is very hard, it is very tough,’’ he said. ‘‘We are leaving our family, our relatives and brothers and sisters in this horrible situation —we have to do what we have to do.’’
Israel has launched more than 1,300 air strikes 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. Several Israelis have been wounded, but there have been no fatalities.
Israel has said it’s 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 say Israel’s heavy bombardment of one of the most densely populated territories in the world is itself the main factor putting civilians at risk.
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, 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.
GAZA CIVILIANS KILLED
A woman and a three-year-old girl were killed in the air strikes in the early hours of Sunday morning, Palestinian officials said.
An Israeli air strike on the home of Gaza’s police chief killed 18 people on Saturday, Gaza’s health ministry said, in what was the single deadliest attack of the offensive, while Hamas fired its largest salvo of rockets yet on Tel Aviv.
A Hamas source said the police chief, Tayseer Al-Batsh, was in critical condition. All of those killed in the air strike which television footage showed was reduced to piles of rubble, were members of Al-Batsh’s family.
Ashraf Al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza Health ministry, said 45 people were wounded and others were still trapped under the rubble where rescue workers were searching.
Israel says it tries to avoid civilian casualties and accuses of Hamas of putting innocent Gazans in harm’s way by placing weaponry and gunmen in residential areas.
A senior Israeli military officer said aircraft had aborted ‘‘hundreds’’ of strikes to avoid collateral damage and that targets bombed were meant to impact Hamas fire capacity.
Many of the rockets have been shot down above Israeli towns by Iron Dome, a partly US-funded interceptor system.
Israel rushed an eighth Iron Dome into service on Saturday to counter stronger-than-expected rocket fire from Gaza.
Israel said it intercepted nine of 131 rockets launched at central areas, sending hundreds of thousands of its civilians running for cover in the south and in Tel Aviv.
Nineteen rockets crashed into open areas.
Fire was also exchanged across Israel’s northern border.
Rockets fired late on Saturday from Lebanon hit Israel, and the military said it responded with artillery fire.
Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of Hezbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim group that battled Israel seven years ago and is engaged in Syria’s civil war in support of President Bashar al-Assad; but there are also Palestinian groups in the same area.
Israel believes a Palestinian group was behind that rocket attack and not Hezbollah, Lerner said. Hamas claimed responsibility for the rocket fire from Lebanon.
-AP and Reuters