Thousands flee town in Gaza after Israel warning
Thousands fled their homes in a Gaza town today 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 salvoes deep into the Jewish state and the worst bout of Israel-Palestinian bloodshed in two years showed no signs of abating, and Western foreign ministers meeting said a ceasefire was an urgent priority.
Israeli forces dropped leaflets into the town of Beit Lahiya near Gaza's northern border with Israel. They read: "Those who fail to comply with the instructions to leave immediately will endanger their lives and the lives of their families. Beware."
The Israeli military told the residents of three of Beit Lahiya's 10 neighbourhoods to get out of the town of 70,000 by midday on Sunday. UN officials said some 4,000 people had fled south to eight schools run by the world body in Gaza City.
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.
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.
"The enemy has built rocket infrastructure in-between the houses [in Beit Lahiya]," the officer said. "He wants to trap me into an attack and into hurting civilians."
At schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City, Beit Lahiya residents arrived in donkey carts filled with children, luggage and mattresses, while others came by car or taxi. One man, still in his pajamas, said some inhabitants had received phone calls warning them to clear out.
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.
The Health Ministry said at least 160 Palestinians, including about 135 civilians - among them some 30 children, have been killed six days of warfare, and more than 1,000 have been wounded.
Dozens of houses in parts of Beit Lahiya were levelled by Israeli bulldozers during a month-long Gaza war in late 2008 and early 2009. Israel says such structures provide cover for militants and rocket launchers.
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.