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Palestinians inspect the rubbles of a destroyed house of Hamas police chief, General Tayser Al Batsh, following an Israeli airstrike in the north of Gaza City on July 13, 2014. / Mohammed Saber, epa

GAZA CITY - Thousands of residents fled northern Gaza on Sunday at the urging of the Israeli military as its ground troops briefly crossed the border on a mission to destroy a launching site.

The tumult came as the death toll from Israel's six-day Operation Protective Edge offensive rose to more than 160, with more than 1,000 injured, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.

"Civilians are requested to evacuate their residences immediately for their own safety," the Israeli leaflets dropped by air warned. They listed specific areas that would "prove to be most dangerous."

Israeli airstrikes hit more than 200 homes and buildings across Gaza on Sunday. Despite calls from the United Nations and world leaders, there were no signs the two sides will agree to a cease-fire soon.

"We don't know when the operation will end," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Cabinet meeting Sunday. "It might take a long time."

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, said the military has hit 1,300 targets since the offensive began July 7. He said Gaza militants have launched 904 rockets at Israel. Of these, 160 were intercepted by Israel's "Iron Dome" anti-rocket system, Lerner said.

Nasr Kafarna, 43, a farmer in northern Gaza who lives near the border, says he has been on edge for the past week. After Israeli troops crossed into Gaza early Sunday, he fears for the worst.

"I worry this is all-out war now," he said. "We haven't recovered from the last one ?? we aren't ready for another one."

The death toll in the first week of this offensive has topped the estimated 133 killed in the last outbreak of hostilities in 2012. That Israeli operation, also to stop rockets being lobbed over the border, lasted eight days. The current conflict follows the murders of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank and the killing of a Palestinian teenager last month in what is being called a revenge death.

Residents say tensions are high in the densely populated, 140-square-mile strip of land squeezed between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea.

"Every time after you hear the sound of a missile hitting sometime, you look up the names of the dead with extreme fear, not knowing whose name you are going to find," said Sabab Farahat, 22, of Gaza City. "Our hearts ache even for the names of the people we do not know."

"I want to go back to my normal life, go to my university and the market and meet my friends," Farahat added. "I really miss normal life."

On Saturday, Israeli airstrikes hit two mosques ?? Israel's government said Hamas hides arms in those places of worship.

Iyad Mortaga, 34, of Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, says she is just in a state of disbelief over what is happening and the deaths from the operation.

"I really don't know how all this came to pass," she said, adding she had attended afternoon prayer at the Dar Al Salam Mosque before it was hit.

"My neighbor ?? we learned of his death two hours after the bombing," she said. "Now I can't go to pray in the mosque and I am afraid to go to any mosques."

In Israel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Yigal Palmor told USA TODAY, "Israel isn't interested in a temporary cease-fire. ... We're not looking for a Band-Aid solution but a long-term plan that will neutralize and take off the table completely all possible threats of rocket fire from Gaza."

Gershon Baskin, the Israeli who negotiated the 2011 prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier Hamas kidnapped in 2006, said he maintains open channels with many in the Palestinian leadership and both sides remain far apart. He said Israel's military is concerned about Hamas' arsenal of anti-tank rockets.

"The Hamas have tunnels and bunkers all throughout the north and center of Gaza, and they are planning to emerge out of nowhere and hit the Israelis with the hopes of being able to grab some soldiers and hold them hostage," Baskin said.

He said a senior official in the Palestinian Authority involved in attempts to get Hamas to agree to a cease-fire told him that Hamas won't stop until after Israel launches a ground invasion. "They want to hurt Israel badly, something they have so far failed to do" with their rockets," Baskin said.

Contributing: Michele Chabin in Jerusalem



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Thousands flee Gaza as Israel ramps up offensive

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