Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening campaign against militant rocket fire that’s seen more than 160 Palestinians killed.
Israeli troops launched the 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 12 p.m.
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 in its six-day offensive.
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.
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In New York, the United Nations Security Council called unanimously for a cease-fire Saturday, but so far, neither Israel nor Gaza’s Hamas rulers have signaled willingness to stop.
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-defense 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, and the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack.