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Israel calls for north Gaza evacuation after deployment of troops

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern Gaza residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening offensive that has killed more than 160 Palestinians.

Neither Israel nor Palestinian militants show signs of agreeing to a cease-fire, despite calls by the United Nations Security Council and others to end the increasingly bloody six-day offensive. With Israel massing tanks and soldiers at Gaza's borders, some fear that could signal a wider ground offensive that would cause heavy casualties.

“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.”

Early Sunday, Israeli troops launched a brief raid into northern Gaza to destroy what the military described as a rocket-launching site, an operation the military said left four soldiers slightly wounded.

The Israeli air force later dropped leaflets warning residents to evacuate their homes ahead of what Israel's military spokesman described as a “short and temporary” campaign against northern Gaza to begin sometime after 12 p.m. (0900 GMT). The area is home to at least 100,000 people.

It was not clear whether the possible attack would be confined to stepped-up airstrikes or whether it might include a sizeable ground offensive — something that Israel has so far been reluctant to undertake.

As the ultimatum drew near, hundreds fled Beit Lahiya, one of the communities the Israeli announcement affected. Some raced by in pickup trucks, waving white flags.

“They are sending warning messages,” resident Mohammad Abu Halemah said. “Once we received the message, we felt scared to stay in our homes. We want to leave.”

Adnan Abu Hassna, a spokesman for the U.N. agency in charge of aiding Palestinian refugees, said eight schools were opened as temporary shelters, and about 4,000 people had moved in. He said more schools would be opened if needed.

Ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire, Israel widened its range of Gaza bombing targets Saturday to include civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties. One strike hit a center for the disabled, killing two patients and wounding four people. In a second attack, an Israeli warplane flattened the home of Gaza police chief Taysir al-Batsh and damaged a nearby mosque as evening prayers ended, killing at least 18 people. Fifty were wounded, including al-Batsh himself.

On Sunday, hundreds chanting “God is Great” joined the funeral procession for 17 members of al-Batsh's extended family who were killed. Among the dead were his sister-in-law and her husband, along with the couple's seven children, ranging in age from 13 to 28. A neighbor also was killed.

Mourners carried the bodies, wrapped in the green flags of the Islamic militant Hamas, through the streets on stretchers.

The attack reduced the al-Batsh family home to sand and rubble. Abdallah al-Batsh, a nephew of the police chief, said Israel had not given warning before the strike.

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Palestinian mourners carry the bodies of members of the al-Batsh family who were killed in an Israeli airstrike, as they walk past the family's damaged houses, during a funeral procession in Gaza City, Sunday, July 13. (AP)

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