Israel briefly deployed troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as some 4,000 people fled southward from the northern part of the territory in the face of Israeli threats to step up attacks there.
Neither Israel nor Palestinian militants show signs of agreeing to a cease-fire to end their weeklong conflict, despite calls by the United Nations Security Council and others that they lay down their arms.
With Israel massing tanks and soldiers at Gaza’s borders, some fear the latest Israeli threats could signal a wider ground offensive that would bring even heavier casualties than the 166 Palestinian deaths already registered.
“All our ground forces are ready,” a senior Israeli military official said Sunday. “We have been training for this. We will exploit our ability the moment a decision is made to do so.”
Early Sunday, Israeli naval commandos launched a brief raid into northern Gaza to destroy what the military described as a rocket-launching site, an operation it said left four of its 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. (0900 GMT). The area is home to at least 100,000 people.
It was not clear whether the possible 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.
As the ultimatum drew near, hundreds fled Beit Lahiya, one of the communities the Israeli announcement affected. Some raced by in pickup trucks, waving white flags.
“They are sending warning messages,” resident Mohammad Abu Halemah said. “Once we received the message, we felt scared to stay in our homes. We want to leave.”
Adnan Abu Hassna, a spokesman for the U.N. agency in charge of aiding Palestinian refugees, said eight schools were opened as temporary shelters, and about 4,000 people had moved in. He said more schools would be opened if needed.
Essam Al Sultan, 46, a farmer from Beit Lahiya said he had taken the decision to flee the area because the youngest of his eight children had been terrorized by the constant sound of explosions in and around their community.
`For me I don’t fear death because we are dying every single moment of this war but I left because I want to protect my family,” he said.
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 continued…