Israel warns 100,000 Gazans to flee their homes as air campaign intensifies

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 6:40pm

Israel on Wednesday warned 100,000 Gazans to leave their homes, as the military intensified its nine-day air campaign after Hamas snubbed an Egyptian ceasefire effort.

As the punishing Israeli military operation resumed pace, Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas was to travel to Egypt and Turkey in search of regional support for an immediate end to the fighting after an earlier attempt at a truce collapsed.

So far, the Israeli air campaign has killed 205 Palestinians, while Gaza militant groups have fired more than 1,200 rockets at southern and central Israel, which on Tuesday claimed its first Israeli life.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed the army would “expand and intensify” its operations after Hamas dismissed an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, firing scores of rockets over the border, despite the army holding its fire for six hours.

Overnight, Israeli warplanes struck about 40 sites across Gaza, among them political targets, including the home of senior Hamas figure Mahmud al-Zahar in Gaza City as well as those of three others in the movement’s political leadership. There were no reports of casualties.

And early on Wednesday, the air force warned some 100,000 Palestinians in the northeastern Gaza Strip to evacuate their homes, warning a series of military strikes was imminent, the military said.

Flyers warn Gazans

The flyers said the military would be carrying out “aerial strikes against terror sites and operatives” in Zeitun and Shejaiya, two flashpoint districts east of Gaza City, saying “a high volume of rocket fire” had been directed from there.

A similar message was sent to residents of Beit Lahiya in the north, echoing a similar warning sent by the army on Sunday, when more than 17,000 residents of the north fled for their lives, most seeking refuge in UN-run schools.

Flyers were dropped over Zeitun, and residents elsewhere also reported receiving recorded phone and text messages urging them to evacuate by midday local time.

“The evacuation is for your own safety,” the leaflet read, warning residents to not return to their homes until further notice.

But Hamas urged residents to ignore the warnings, dismissing it as “psychological warfare”.

“There is no need to worry about these [warnings], or deal with them. Do not respond to them in any way,” an interior ministry statement said.

“This is part of the psychological war, intended to disrupt the domestic front.”

Following Sunday’s warnings, the promised assault failed to materialise, sparking criticism from rights groups.

The warnings were issued as Operation Protective Edge entered its ninth day, with the military seeking to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza militants.

Since July 8, militants have fired more than 1,200 rockets and mortars at Israel, and Israel has bombed more than 1,750 targets inside Gaza, the army says.

Fresh truce efforts

The latest raids came after the rockets claimed their first Israeli life, killing a civilian who was delivering food to soldiers near the northern Erez crossing, medics said.

“This would have been better resolved diplomatically... but Hamas leaves us no choice but to expand and intensify the campaign against it,” Netanyahu said Tuesday after Hamas snubbed Egyptian truce efforts.

However, Mussa Abu Marzuq, a top member of Hamas’s exiled political leadership, said the movement was still in discussions about a possible ceasefire.

Hamas has said it wants the end of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt as part of any agreement.

It also wants Israel to free Palestinians it rearrested after releasing them in a 2011 exchange for an Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants for more than five years.

In his remarks on Tuesday evening, Netanyahu hit back at domestic critics of his decision to accept Egypt’s proposal.

“These are moments when decisions must be made coolly and with patience, not hastily or noisily,” he said, shortly before sacking his own deputy defence minister who had criticised the government’s handling of the crisis.

Palestinian president Abbas was due to arrive in Cairo on Wednesday evening where he was expected to meet top Egyptian officials over fresh efforts to seek a ceasefire, and was expected to head to Turkey a day later, officials said.