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Gazans flee homes as Israel harshens campaign

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Israel harshened its campaign against Gaza Sunday, warning Palestinians in the north to flee after marines mounted a ground attack, and diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed intensified.

As world powers prepared to meet over the spiralling bloodshed, the Palestinian death toll from the punishing Israeli air campaign hit 166, with another 1,120 people wounded, the emergency services said.

Despite increasing calls for a ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was hitting Hamas "with growing force," warning there was no end in sight.

"We do not know when this operation will end," he told ministers.

As the death toll from the six-day campaign spiralled, the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said most of the victims were civilians, putting the number at more than 130, among them 35 children and 26 women.

It also said Israeli had targeted 147 homes and badly damaged hundreds of others.

So far, no Israelis have been killed, although militants in Gaza have pounded the south and centre of the country with more than 690 rockets since the fighting began on July 8. More than 150 have been intercepted.

The repeated rocket fire from Gaza forced the cancellation of Canadian rocker Neil Yong's concert in Tel Aviv, organisers said on Sunday, citing fears for the safety of the audience.

Overnight, Israeli naval commandos raided northern Gaza on a mission to destroy longer-range rockets, with radio reports speaking of a fierce gun battle with Hamas militants in the Sudaniya district.

Shortly afterwards, the army sent messages to residents of the north urging them to "immediately" leave their homes ahead of a major assault which would focus on the town of Beit Lahiya.

Even before the warning, thousands began fleeing the area, an AFP correspondent reported.

"It was the middle of the night, and I gathered the children, they were so afraid," said Samari al-Atar, breaking down in tears as she described how her family fled barefoot with shooting all around.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Israeli military official said the area was rife with rocket launchers and would be targeted in an operation which would begin during the evening.

- Refuge in schools -

Many of those fleeing the north sought refuge in eight schools run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, where some 4,000 people had taken cover, UNRWA's head of operations Robert Turner told reporters.

"More are arriving by the minute. They are mostly fleeing areas in the north," he said. UNRWA facilities have the capacity to shelter up to 35,000 people, a spokesman said.

Saturday's death toll was the highest yet with 56 people killed, including 18 people who died in a single strike on a house in Gaza City, medics said.

The blast levelled the building and sheared the facade off a neighbouring structure, exposing a kitchen and a fridge with its door ripped off, full of food and drink, an AFP correspondent said.

"It is a disaster," said 17-year-old Mohamed Abu Aisha as he stared at the devastation caused by the strike that shook houses across the neighbourhood.

So far neither side has shown any interest in talk of a ceasefire, with top diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and the United States due to discuss truce efforts in Vienna later on Sunday.

Pope Francis appealed to world leaders for both prayer and diplomacy to halt the bloodshed, while the German and Italian foreign ministers were both poised to head to the region to join truce efforts, their offices said.

As the fighting showed no sign of let-up, thousands rallied across Asia to denounce the Israeli offensive and show support for Palestinians, with 3,000 gathering and hundreds more in Hong Kong, New Delhi and Jakarta.

- No rush into ground assault -

Late on Saturday, two rockets fired from Lebanon struck northern Israel, hitting open ground near the coastal town of Nahariya, in the second such attack in as many days.

Netanyahu has vowed that "no international pressure" will halt the campaign against Hamas, with army radio saying Israel wanted a much more comprehensive truce than that which halted the fighting in 2012.

Israel has warned that preparations are under way for a possible ground incursion, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying a decision was expected on Sunday.

The security cabinet was to meet from 1530 GMT, officials said.

But commentators said Israel was not in a rush to begin a ground operation.

"Despite the convoy of tanks heading south and the infantry brigades massing near the border with Gaza, it is obvious that Israel is in no hurry for the operation's ground phase," Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz newspaper, saying the aim was to "first exhaust diplomatic options".

The latest escalation began on June 12 when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, triggering a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank and an uptick of rocket fire from Gaza, which worsened after a Palestinian teen was killed by Jewish extremists on July 2.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140713/gazans-flee-homes-israel-harshens-campaign