GAZA CITY: Israel harshened its campaign against Gaza Sunday, warning Palestinians in the north to flee after marines mounted a ground attack, and diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed intensified.
As world powers prepared to meet over the spiralling bloodshed, the Palestinian death toll from the punishing Israeli air campaign hit 166, with another 1,120 people wounded, the emergency services said.
Despite increasing calls for a ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was hitting Hamas “with growing force,” warning there was no end in sight.
“We do not know when this operation will end,” he told ministers.
And Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he would ask UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to “put the State of Palestine under the UN international protection system” in order to address the violence in Gaza.
As the death toll from the six-day campaign spiralled, the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said most of the victims were civilians, putting the number at more than 130, among them 35 children and 26 women.
It also said Israeli had targeted 147 homes and badly damaged hundreds of others.
So far, no Israelis have been killed, although militants in Gaza have pounded the south and centre of the country with more than 690 rockets since the fighting began on July 8. More than 150 have been intercepted.
Overnight, Israeli naval commandos staged a brief ground assault in northern Gaza on a mission to destroy longer-range rockets, with the army warning residents to leave the area ahead of a major assault on the sector.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Israeli military official said the area was rife with rocket launchers and would be targeted in an operation which would begin during the evening.
With multiple air raid sirens sending thousands of Tel Aviv residents fleeing for shelter, concert organisers announced Sunday the cancellation of a highly-anticipated Neil Young gig which had been scheduled to take place in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
“This is due to the rocket attacks of recent days and the fear for the audience’s safety in a mass event,” concert promoter Shuki Weiss wrote on his Facebook page.
Meanwhile in northern Gaza, even before the army’s warnings went out, thousands of residents were fleeing for their lives after a night of traumatic violence, an AFP correspondent reported.
“It was the middle of the night, and I gathered the children, they were so afraid,” said Samari al-Atar, breaking down in tears as she described how her family fled barefoot with shooting all around.
Many sought refuge in eight schools run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, where some 4,000 people had taken cover, UNRWA’s head of operations Robert Turner told reporters.
“More are arriving by the minute. They are mostly fleeing areas in the north,” he said. UNRWA facilities have the capacity to shelter up to 35,000 people, a spokesman said.
Saturday’s death toll was the highest yet with 56 people killed, including 18 people who died in a single strike on a house in Gaza City, medics said.
The blast levelled the building and sheared the facade off a neighbouring structure, exposing a kitchen and a fridge with its door ripped off, full of food and drink.
“It is a disaster,” said 17-year-old Mohamed Abu Aisha as he stared at the devastation.
So far neither side has shown any interest in talk of a ceasefire, with top diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and the United States due to discuss truce efforts in Vienna later on Sunday.
Pope Francis appealed to world leaders for both prayer and diplomacy to halt the bloodshed, while the German and Italian foreign ministers were both poised to head to the region to join truce efforts, their offices said.
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