Israel warns Gazans to flee as air campaign intensifies

Hamas tells residents of Beit Lahiya, Shuja’iya and Zeitoun to ignore evacuation instructions

Palestinians sleep in the yard of a UN school in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya early on July 16, 2014, after evacuating their houses near the border with Israel. (photo credit: AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)
Palestinians sleep in the yard of a UN school in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya early on July 16, 2014, after evacuating their houses near the border with Israel. (photo credit: AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

Israel on Wednesday warned 100,000 Gazans to leave their homes as the military intensified its nine-day air campaign, after Hamas snubbed an Egyptian ceasefire effort the day before.

During the morning, the Israel Air Force dropped flyers while recorded phone calls and SMS messages to residents warned a series of military strikes was imminent, the military said.

The flyers said the military would carry out air strikes against targets in Zeitoun and Shuja’iya, two flashpoint districts east of Gaza City, noting that “a high volume of rocket fire” had been directed from there. Residents were advised to evacuate to Gaza City by 8.00 a.m. local time.

“In spite of the ceasefire, Hamas and other terror organizations continued to fire rockets, therefore it is the intention of the IDF to carry out aerial strikes against terror sites and operatives in Shuja’iya and Zeitoun,” the leaflets read. “A high volume of rocket fire at Israel has originated in this area.”

“For your own safety, you are requested to vacate from your residence immediately and head towards Gaza City by Wednesday morning, July 16, 2014, at 08:00 AM. The IDF does not want to harm you, and your families. The evacuation is for your own safety. You should not return to the premises until further notice. Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately, endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families.”

A similar message was sent to residents of Beit Lahiya in the north, echoing a warning sent by the IDF on Sunday, when more than 17,000 residents of the north fled for their lives, most seeking refuge in UN-run schools. Beit Lahiya residents were told to head for southern Jabalia for their own safety.

However, residents of Shuja’iya and Zeitoun were not evacuating their homes, in spite of the Israeli ultimatum issued, Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip told The Times of Israel.

Only a small number of Palestinian residents in the eastern neighborhoods of Gaza City left since the army messages were issued.

The stand was in contrast to the 18,000 residents of Beit Lahiya who left their homes earlier this week, following an IDF warning on Sunday. That promised assault failed to materialize, sparking criticism from rights groups.

As on Sunday, Hamas urged residents to ignore the warnings, dismissing it as “psychological warfare”.

“There is no need to worry about these (warnings), or deal with them. Do not respond to them in any way,” a Hamas interior ministry statement said. “This is part of the psychological war, intended to disrupt the domestic front.”

The warnings were issued as Operation Protective Edge entered its ninth day, with the military seeking to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza militants.

Since July 8, militants have fired more than 1,200 rockets and mortars at Israel, and Israel has bombed more than 1,750 targets inside Gaza, the army said.

Fresh truce efforts

The latest raids came after the rockets claimed their first Israeli life, killing a civilian who was delivering food to soldiers near the northern Erez crossing, medics said.

“This would have been better resolved diplomatically… but Hamas leaves us no choice but to expand and intensify the campaign against it,” Netanyahu said Tuesday after Hamas snubbed Egyptian truce efforts.

However, Mussa Abu Marzuq, a top member of Hamas’s exiled political leadership, said the movement was still in discussions about a possible ceasefire.

Hamas has said it wants the end of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt as part of any agreement.

It also wants Israel to free Palestinians it rearrested after releasing them in a 2011 exchange for an Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants for more than five years.

Palestinian Authority president Abbas was due to arrive in Cairo on Wednesday evening where he was expected to meet top Egyptian officials over fresh efforts to seek a ceasefire, and was expected to head to Turkey a day later, officials said.

Overnight, Israeli warplanes struck about 40 sites across Gaza, among them political targets, including the home of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Zahar in Gaza City as well as those of three others in the movement’s political leadership. There were no reports of casualties.

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