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Palestinians flee after Israeli warning

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip--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 ordered tens of thousands of residents of border areas to evacuate their neighborhoods.

The Palestinian death toll in nine days of fighting rose to 204, with some 1,450 wounded, Palestinian health officials said. On the Israeli side, one man was killed and several people were wounded since the fighting erupted on July 8.

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.

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Smoke rises after Israeli missile strikes hit the northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, July 16.

( AP

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