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Palestinian mourners cry during the funeral of four-year-old Palestinian girl Sarah Sheik al-Eid and of her father and uncle, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on July 15
Israelis poised for incursions Gaza toll hits 213

GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 16, (Agencies): Israel urged the evacuation on Wednesday of several Gaza Strip areas where more than 100,000 people live, threatening ground operations after briefly holding fire under an Egyptian truce proposal that failed to stop Palestinian rocket salvoes. Authorised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet to escalate an eight-day-old offensive, the military said it had sent out evacuation warnings in northeastern Gaza. “Failure to comply will endanger your lives and the lives of your family,” said recorded phone messages received by residents of Shejaia and Zeitoun districts, which sprawl out toward the border with Israel and have more than 100,000 residents.

Israeli experts predicted overland raids to destroy command bunkers and tunnels that have allowed the outgunned Palestinians to withstand air and naval barrages on Gaza and keep rockets flying. Israeli shelling attacks killed at least seven Palestinians earlier on Wednesday, according to Gaza health officials who said the death toll in the coastal enclave had risen to 213 and that most of the dead were civilians.

Israel said 26 rockets were fired at it from Gaza, including at commercial hub Tel Aviv. Some were shot down by the Iron Dome interceptor. Others struck without causing casualties, emergency services said.
World powers urged calm, worried about spiralling casualties should Israel send tens of thousands of troops it has mobilised into Gaza. It is one of the world’s mostly densely populated areas, its poverty exacerbated by the collapse of public works and displacement of at least 18,000 Palestinians who the UN said have taken shelter at its Gaza City schools.
 
On Tuesday, Israel unilaterally accepted an Egyptian blueprint for a ceasefire. The dominant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, however, said it had not been consulted by Cairo and kept up rocket attacks while Israel held back for six hours. With Palestinian fire having inflicted the first Israeli fatality of the conflict — a civilian bringing food to soldiers near Gaza — Netanyahu vowed to “expand and intensify” to stop persistent rocket strikes that have made a race for shelters a daily routine for hundreds of thousands in the Jewish state.
“The direction now is to continue air strikes and, if need be, enter with ground forces in a tactical, measured manner,” an Israeli official said after the security cabinet met overnight.
The Israelis blew up a cross-border tunnel last week which, they say, may have been just one of many that Hamas has dug for deadly infiltration raids on their southern towns.
While tunnel-hunting incursions would be far short of a full-scale invasion and reoccupation, there is still the danger for Israel that risky and time-consuming missions could fall to Palestinian ambushes.
Campaign
Hamas leaders have talked up their “tunnel campaign” against the Israeli enemy. One publicity video showed Palestinian fighters hauling rockets through a narrow passage to load onto a launcher that appears buried in an orchard. It is then fired remotely after its mechanised cover slides open.
Media reports on the Israeli military suggest it has just one dedicated tunnel-hunting unit, codenamed “Ferrets” — potentially no more than a few dozen commandos equipped with breathing apparatus, attack dogs and scouting robots.
Detecting the underground network is a problem for Israel — as shown by the continued rocket salvoes from Gaza despite its intensive, intelligence-guided air strikes on suspected sites.
Geologist Yossi Langotsky, a retired army colonel and Defence Ministry adviser, said on Army Radio that Israel had failed to develop technologies to “hear” hidden digs, allowing completion of the secret passages that now await activation.
Amos Yadlin, a former commander of Israeli military intelligence, said a crackdown on the tunnels was pressing, calling them “the second-most serious threat after the long-range rockets — or the primary threat, according to some”.
Yadlin, who now heads the INSS think-tank at Tel Aviv University, played down the operational risk to Israel.
“The tunnels cannot be tackled except from the Palestinian side, but they are in relatively uninhabited areas,” he said. “We would not have a problem maintaining control. I don’t accept the argument that this would be a sinkhole back into Gaza.”
Hamas has faced a cash crisis and Gaza’s economic hardship has deepened as a result of Egypt’s destruction of cross-border smuggling tunnels. Cairo accuses Hamas of assisting anti-government Islamist militants in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, an accusation that the Palestinian group denies.
The current hostilities were sparked by the kidnap and killing last month of three Jewish seminary students in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the revenge murder of a Palestinian youth.
Hamas leaders have said any Gaza ceasefire must include an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory, recommitment to a truce reached in an eight-day war there in 2012 and the release of hundreds of its activists arrested in the West Bank while Israel searched for the three missing teenagers.
Hamas also wants Egypt to ease curbs at its Rafah crossing with Gaza, imposed after the toppling of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo last year.
Killed
Four children on the beach in Gaza City were killed in an Israeli raid on Wednesday, raising the overall death toll to 213, the emergency services said.
All four were on the beach when the attack took place, in what initially appeared to be shelling from the sea, according to AFP correspondents who witnessed the attack from a nearby hotel.
Several injured children took refuge at the hotel, they added.
The latest violence took Wednesday’s death toll to 16, and raised the overall number of dead in Gaza after nine days of violence to 216, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said. More than 1,560 have been wounded.
Earlier, a 37-year-old man was killed in an air strike on the Zeitun neighbourhood, east of Gaza City, which took place several hours after the army warned 100,000 residents to leave the area and the neighbouring district of Shejaiya.
Most of Wednesday’s deaths came in the south, with six killed in several strikes on Khan Yunis and five killed in Rafah, which straddles the Egyptian border.
In Khan Yunis, four people from the Al-Daqqa family were killed in two separate strikes, one of which killed a 65-year-old woman and a 10-year-old boy.
One of the victims in Khan Yunis was killed by tank fire.
In Rafah, five men were killed in four separate strikes, one of which hit a house in the city, Qudra said.
According to figures provided by the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), more than 80 percent of the victims were civilians.
So far, one person has been killed in Israel — a civilian who died on Tuesday evening in a rocket strike near the Erez crossing, medics said. Four Israelis have been seriously wounded.
Since the latest violence began before dawn on July 8, 1,021 rockets fired from Gaza have struck Israel, and another 256 have been shot down by the Iron Dome air defence system, army figures show.
Forty-three struck Israel on Wednesday and 24 were intercepted.
During its operation, Israel has struck more than 1,750 “terror targets” across the coastal enclave, the army said.
Talks
A Hamas official was to hold talks in Cairo on Wednesday on Egyptian efforts to end the deadly conflict between his Gaza-based Islamist movement and Israel, the Palestinians said.
Hamas rejected a ceasefire proposal which Egypt put forward this week, complaining it had not been a party to the discussions.
“A meeting will be held this afternoon between an official from Hamas and a representative of the Egyptian leadership,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior member of the Fatah movement of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Abbas himself later arrived in Cairo to join the diplomatic efforts to end the Gaza conflict in which 213 Palestinians have been killed since July 8.
Ahmad said he hoped the talks in Cairo would “crystalize a definite formula for an Egyptian initiative” or clarify its plan, which had proposed an end to hostilities from 0600 GMT on Tuesday.
Israel initially accepted the Egyptian initiative, but later intensified its air strikes aimed at stamping out rocket fire by Gaza militants following Hamas’s rejection of the plan.
Ahmad’s remarks came as Middle East peace Quartet envoy Tony Blair held talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, on his second visit to Cairo in a week to discuss the Gaza conflict.
Blair said Egypt’s initiative was designed “to allow all the issues that are at the heart of this problem .. to be dealt with in a thorough and proper way.”
“There are demands by Hamas in respect of Gaza and there are demands by Israel in respect of security,” he said.
“But the purpose of this initiative is to allow people to come and discuss those issues, but in the meantime for the violence to stop and for the lives of the innocent to be saved,” Blair said at a joint news conference with Shoukri.
Shoukri said Egypt’s proposal aimed at “stopping military actions in order to address the situation in Gaza in the medium and long terms, and to give an opportunity to resume the peace process.”
Fled
Hundreds of Palestinian families, their children crying, fled Wednesday, as Israel intensified airstrikes on Hamas targets, including homes of the movement’s leaders, following failed Egyptian cease-fire efforts. Before the renewed bombardment, Israel had told tens of thousands of residents of border areas to evacuate their neighborhoods.
The renewed bombings came a day after Israel initially accepted an Egyptian truce proposal that called for a halt of hostilities. That was to be followed by talks on the terms of a longer-term cease-fire, including easing Gaza’s seven-year-old border blockade by Israel and Egypt.
Hamas rejected the plan and instead launched more rockets at Israel. The militant group views a significant easing of the blockade as key to its survival, but does not believe Egypt’s current rulers — who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo last year — can be fair brokers. As Cairo’s effort collapsed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Hamas will pay a high price for rejecting the truce offer.
 
The website of the Gaza Interior Ministry said Israel warplanes carried out dozens of air strikes before dawn Wednesday, targeting 30 houses, including those of senior Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar, Jamila Shanti, Fathi Hamas and Ismail Ashkar. Zahar was a key figure in Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, while the other three were members of the Palestinian parliament elected in 2006. Many Hamas leaders have gone into hiding since the beginning of the Israeli offensive. Alongside the air strikes, Israel also told tens of thousands of residents of the northern town of Beit Lahiya and the Zeitoun and Shijaiyah neighborhoods of Gaza City, all near the border with Israel, to evacuate their homes by 8 a.m. Wednesday. The warnings were delivered in automated phone calls, text messages and leaflets dropped from planes.
 
The Israeli military said in its message that large numbers of rockets were launched from these areas and that Israel plans to bomb these locations. “Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately, endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families,” the message said. On Wednesday morning, hundreds of residents of Zeitoun and Shijaiyah were seen walking in the streets, carrying small bags with belongings. Older children carried smaller ones, in their arms or on their backs. Some of the women and children cried, looking terrified. The Wafa Rehabilitation Center in Shijaiyah, which cares for 15 disabled and elderly patients, received several calls demanding the patients evacuate, said its director, Basman Ashi.

 

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