Thousands on Sunday fled their homes in a Gaza town after Israel warned them to leave ahead of threatened attacks on rocket-launching sites, on the sixth day of an offensive that Palestinian officials said has killed at least 160 people.
Militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip kept up rockets bombardments deep into the Jewish state and the worst bout of Israel-Palestinian bloodshed in two years showed no signs of abating, as a meeting by western foreign ministers on Sunday said a ceasefire was an urgent priority.
Israeli forces dropped leaflets into the town of Beit Lahiya near Gaza’s northern border with Israel which read: “Those who fail to comply with the instructions to leave immediately will endanger their lives and the lives of their families. Beware.”
The leaflets marked the first time Israel had warned Palestinians to vacate dwellings in such a wide area. Previous warnings, by telephone or so-called “knock-on-the-door” missiles without explosive warheads, had been directed at individual homes slated for attack.
The Israeli military told the residents of three of Beit Lahiya’s 10 neighborhoods to get out of the town of 70,000 by midday on Sunday.
A senior Israeli 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.
United Nations, UN, officials said some 4,000 people had fled south to eight schools run by the world body in Gaza City.
At schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City, Beit Lahiya residents arrived in donkey drawn carts filled with children, luggage and mattresses, while others came by car or taxi.
However, the Gaza Interior ministry, in a statement on Hamas radio, dismissed the Israeli warnings as “psychological warfare” and instructed those who left their homes to return and others to stay put.