Gazans Flee Homes After Israel Warns of Stepped-Up Raids

Thousands of Palestinians heeded warnings to flee their homes in the Gaza Strip as Israel ratcheted up its attacks on Hamas and the death toll from a week of conflict climbed past 160.

The Israeli military dropped leaflets and left voice and text messages urging residents in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya to leave because it intends to attack “terrorists and terror infrastructure,” according to the army. About 4,000 Gazans sought refuge afterward in shelters run by the UN Relief and Works Agency, spokesman Chris Gunness said today on Twitter.

As trucks carrying tanks traveled south to the Gaza border, Israel edged closer to its first ground assault on the territory since 2009 and world leaders appealed for a cease-fire. The Palestinian Authority appealed to the United Nations today for international protection.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that Israel will act “vigorously in order to achieve the goal of the operation -- the restoration of quiet for a long period while inflicting a significant blow on Hamas and the other terrorist organizations.”

According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, 165 Palestinians, including dozens of children, have died since Israel intensified its air strikes on the territory last week in response to rocket attacks on Israeli communities.

Gaza Battleground

More than 95 rockets hit Israel today and about 900 have been launched since July 8, according to the Israeli military. One of them hit an Israeli power facility that supplies Gaza, cutting electricity to 70,000 Palestinians in the territory, the military said in a text message.

Amid the barrage from Gaza on the south of Israel, at least one missile was fired from Syria in the north and landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, causing a blaze responded to by firefighters, the army said.

Israel’s Shin-Bet security agency, meanwhile, warned that hackers in Gaza and elsewhere were planting phony messages in its name about terrorist attacks that didn’t happen and that could cause viruses if opened. It also advised journalists to double-check reports they receive for authenticity.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pushed for a truce in a call with Netanyahu, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity to discuss the conversation. Kerry said the U.S. was willing to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, the official said.

Restraint Urged

Hamas-controlled Gaza has become a regular battleground for Israel and Palestinians since the Israelis evacuated the strip in 2005 after a 38-year occupation. Hamas uses the territory as a platform to attack Israel, which together with Egypt sharply restricts the movement of people and goods to and from the enclave. Two major Israeli air and ground offensives against Hamas’s military capabilities since 2009 have only temporarily quashed the rocket fire.

The U.S. and European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.

The Tel-Aviv 25 Index closed up 1.3 percent in Tel Aviv today as investors bet the clashes will have a limited effect on the economy and energy companies raised estimates for gas reserves off Israel’s coast.

The Palestinian death toll includes at least 15 Palestinians killed late yesterday in an air raid on the Gaza City home of the Hamas police commander, General Tayseer al-Batsh, according to Ashraf al Qedra, spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry.

‘Defend Our People’

Dozens of civilian deaths have prompted calls from world leaders for Israeli restraint. “There are always going to be civilian casualties, which we regret,” Netanyahu told Fox News Sunday. “But we have to defend our people, and that’s what we’ll do.”

The violence is straining the Palestinian health system, and the World Health Organization appealed for $60 million to help prevent its collapse. Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Abu Omar and Health Minister Jawad Awad will head to Gaza for the first time since the Palestinians formed a Hamas-backed government in June, according to a government statement.

No Israelis have died from rocket fire, although a 16-year-old teenager was badly hurt in an attack today, Channel 2 TV said. Netanyahu accused Hamas of exposing Gaza civilians to danger by putting militants and weapons in mosques and hospitals and near schools.

“We don’t know how long the campaign will carry on,” he said in comments to his cabinet, according to an e-mailed statement from his office. “It may take a long time.”

Israeli soldiers entered Gaza briefly overnight to destroy a rocket-launching site and four were slightly wounded in an exchange of fire with militants, the army said. It was the first ground deployment since hostilities intensified though not the full-fledged ground incursion that Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have signaled may come.

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