Thousands of people in the Gaza Strip fled their homes and took shelter in United Nations schools Sunday after the Israeli army ordered them to evacuate in advance of intensified air strikes in the northern part of the coastal enclave.
As the reported Palestinian death toll climbed past 160 in Israel’s offensive against the militant Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, there were fresh diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire but no signs of a breakthrough.
Israel’s security cabinet met to consider its next moves, and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to prevent further escalation.
But the mass displacement in the northern Gaza Strip threatened to turn the worsening fighting into a humanitarian crisis, with aid groups reporting damage to power and water lines from Israeli bombardments and hospitals running out of supplies.
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Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, said that “thousands of people are on the move,” and that about 17,000 displaced people had sought shelter in the agency’s schools.
People came on foot, by donkey cart and in vehicles piled with bedding and personal belongings, quickly filling school compounds that were hastily turned into temporary shelters.
“The situation in the Gaza Strip remains devastating and unpredictable,” Gunness said.
Gaza militants continued firing rockets deep into Israel, reaching the outskirts of the northern port city of Haifa, about 100 miles away. Sirens wailed in the Tel Aviv area and near Jerusalem as people took cover in shelters and safe rooms.
In the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, a 16-year old was seriously wounded by shrapnel when an incoming rocket exploded as he returned home after venturing out to get a haircut, his father said.
UN officials said that at least 70 percent of the Palestinians killed in the strikes on Gaza were civilians, and they included at least 32 children. More than 1,100 have been injured, according to UN figures.
The Israeli human rights group B’tselem said that 52 people, many of them civilians, died in strikes that targeted family homes of suspected militants. B’tselem said such attacks violated international law. The army asserts that the houses were used by militants to direct their activities and therefore legitimate military targets.
In a strike on a house late Saturday that targeted Tayseer al-Batsh, the Gaza police chief, at least 18 people were killed and he was seriously wounded, according to local reports. People who had left an adjacent mosque were apparently also hit in the strike, leading to the large number of casualties, an Israeli military official said.
The army said it was checking the circumstances of another strike Saturday that hit a home for the handicapped in the town of Beit Lahiya, killing two disabled women living in the building. Televised images of the site showed mangled wheelchairs among the rubble.
In remarks before the weekly meeting of his cabinet, Netanyahu put the blame for the civilian casualties squarely on Hamas, accusing it of hiding behind civilians.
“Hamas uses the residents of Gaza as human shields and it is bringing disaster to the citizens of Gaza, so the responsibility for any harm to the citizens of Gaza – which we regret – is borne solely by Hamas and its partners,” he said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked the UN for international protection for the Palestinians, handing a letter with the request to the UN’s Middle East envoy, Robert Serry.
“Our patience has run out,” Abbas said. “Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people must stop.”
The Israeli army said that it called on residents of the northern Gaza Strip to leave their homes before a planned escalation of air assaults.
Warnings were delivered by phone, and leaflets dropped in the area told residents to leave “for your own safety.”
“Whoever violates these orders and does not vacate his home immediately puts his life and the lives of his family members in danger!” the leaflets said.
While Israeli infantry and tank forces remained mobilized at the borders of the Gaza Strip, there were no signs of imminent movement toward a ground invasion.
A seaborne raid by Israeli commandos on a long-range rocket launching site near the Gaza coast met resistance from Palestinian militants, and four soldiers were lightly wounded, the army said.
The raid appeared to be retaliation for an attempted seaborne raid by Hamas last week, in which five militants were killed as they tried to attack an Israeli army base just north of the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.