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Updated: Sat, 12 Jul 2014 16:54:24 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Israel orders northern Gaza residents to leave as it steps up offensive



Medics carry a 14-year-old Palestinian from Gaza into a hospital in el-Arish, 290 kilometers (© 180 miles)

Medics carry a 14-year-old Palestinian from Gaza into a hospital in el-Arish, 290 kilometers (180 miles) east of Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, July 12, 2014. El-Arish is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip. Egypt has reopened its Rafah border crossing to allow wounded Palestinians to cross for medical treatment. (AP Photo/Muhamed Sabry) The Associated Press

The Israeli military says it is ordering Palestinians living in the northern Gaza Strip to evacuate the area "for their own safety." In a statement Saturday, the military said it would send messages to residents overnight to leave the area.

Also on Saturday, the Israeli military said it opened fire into Lebanon in response to rocket fire, fearing militant groups in Lebanon may try to open a second front as Israel wages a military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, the chief military spokesman, said the Gaza evacuations were due to Israel's plans to hit the area with heavy force in the next 24 hours.

Officials say the area has been used to fire rockets at Tel Aviv.

Israel widened its air assault against the Gaza Strip's Hamas militants on Saturday, hitting targets that included a mosque the Israeli military said had been used by Hamas to conceal rockets. 

Medical officials in the Gaza Strip said 15 people were been killed in the latest airstrike. Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra says the airstrike took place just as people were ending evening prayers at the mosque.

The CBC's Derek Stoffel reported from Gaza City that Hamas launched 10 rockets aimed at Tel Aviv but that most of those rockets have been intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defence system.

The armed wing of Hamas released a televised statement earlier Saturday warning that it would strike the coastal city.

Palestinians said the death toll from the five-day offensive has risen to about 150. The Reuters news agency quoted Palestinian medics as saying 19 people were killed in Gaza on Saturday.

In New York, the UN Security Council unanimously called for a ceasefire, while Britain's foreign minister said he would be discussing ceasefire efforts with his American, French and German counterparts on Sunday.

The 15-member Security Council issued a press statement calling for a de-escalation, restoration of calm and a resumption of Mideast peace talks.

An Israeli official said the goal of the operation is to restore quiet to Israel for a continuous period. "This goal will be achieved whether it is done militarily or diplomatically. Israel will consider any suggestion that will bring the accomplishment of this goal," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The military said it has struck more than 1,100 targets, including Hamas rocket launchers, command centres and weapon manufacturing and storage facilities, in a bid to stop relentless rocket fire coming Gaza. Officials in the territory said that two women were killed in the attack on the disabled centre.

The central Gaza mosque was being used to conceal rockets like those militants have fired nearly 700 times toward Israel over the past five days, the military said. However, the strikes in the densely populated Gaza Strip show the challenge Israel faces as it considers a ground operation.

Militants hit hard

While there have been no fatalities in Israel from the continued rocket fire, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said overnight Israeli strikes raised the death toll there to over 125, with more than 920 wounded.

Hamas militants have been hit hard. Though the exact breakdown of casualties remains unclear, dozens of the dead  have been civilians.

The offensive showed no signs of slowing down Saturday as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said his country should ready itself for several more days of fighting.

"We have accumulated achievements as far as the price Hamas is paying and we are continuing to destroy significant targets of it and other terror organizations," Yaalon said after a meeting with top security officials. "We will continue to punish it until quiet and security returns to southern Israel and the rest of the country."

'Hostile to Islam'

Hamas said it hoped the mosque attack would galvanize support for it in the Muslim world.

"(It) shows how barbaric this enemy is and how much it is hostile to Islam," said Husam Badran, a Hamas spokesman in Doha, Qatar. "This terrorism gives us the right to broaden our response to deter this occupier."

The Israeli military released an aerial photo of the mosque it hit, saying Hamas hid rockets in it right next to another religious site and civilian homes. It said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza militant groups use this tactic of abusing religious sites to conceal weapons and establish underground tunnel networks, deliberately endangering civilians.

"Hamas terrorists systematically exploit and choose to put Palestinians in Gaza in harm's way and continue to locate their positions among civilian areas and mosques, proving once more their disregard for human life and holy sites," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.

Critics though say such allegations are too sweeping, and that Israel's heavy bombardment of one of the densely populated territories is itself the main factor putting civilians at risk.

Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that while using human shields violates international humanitarian law, "this does not give Israel the excuse to violate international humanitarian law as well."

Israel issues early warnings before attacking Gaza targets and the military says it uses other means to do its utmost to avoid harming bystanders. But Michaeli said civilians have been killed when Israel bombed family homes of Hamas militants or when residents were unable to leave their homes quickly enough following the Israeli warnings.

"Justifying all Israeli attacks that lead to civilian casualties by saying Hamas is using human shields is factually incorrect," she said.

The rocket fire from Gaza militants appeared to tail off somewhat Saturday, with a new round resuming later in the day. The "Iron Dome," a U.S.-funded, Israel-developed rocket defence system, has intercepted more than 130 incoming rockets, preventing any Israeli fatalities so far. A handful of Israelis have been wounded by rockets that slipped through.

The most seriously wounded Israeli resulted from a rocket that struck a gas station Friday in the southern city of Ashdod, setting off a huge explosion. A house in Beersheba suffered a direct hit though the family living there was not home.

Non-stop coverage

As a precaution, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv relocated its personnel assigned to Beersheba. However, militant rockets have reached further into Israel than ever before, with air raid sirens sounding even in the northern city of Haifa, 160 kilometres away.

The frequent rocket fire has disrupted daily life in Israel, particularly in southern communities that have absorbed the brunt of it. Israelis mostly have stayed close to home. Television channels air non-stop coverage of the violence and radio broadcasts are interrupted live with every air raid siren warning of incoming rockets.

The frequent airstrikes have turned the normally frenetic Gaza City into a virtual ghost town, emptying streets, closing shops and keeping hundreds of thousands of people close to home where they feel safest from the bombs.

The offensive is the heaviest fighting since a similar eight-day campaign in November 2012 to stop Gaza rocket fire. The outbreak of violence follows the kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, and the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack.

Israel has pummelled Gaza at twice the rate of the 2012 operation and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on with the campaign until there is a complete halt to rocket attacks from the seaside Palestinian territory. Israel has massed thousands of troops along the border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, with soldiers atop vehicles mobilized and ready to move into Gaza if the order arrives.

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