GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire, Israel widened its range of Gaza bombing targets to civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties and deployed ground troops inside Gaza for the first time early today to raid a rocket launching site in the Palestinian territory. More than 156 Palestinians have been killed in five days of bombardment.
Four Israeli soldiers were hurt in clashes during the brief incursion to destroy a rocket launching site in northern Gaza, the military said. It said they have returned to Israeli territory.
It was the first time that Israeli ground troops are known to have entered Gaza in the current offensive. But the operation was carried out by special forces and did not appear to be the beginning of a broad ground offensive.
On Saturday, Israel announced it would hit northern Gaza with great force to prevent rocket attacks from there on Israel.
One of the Israeli strikes hit a center for the disabled where Palestinians said two patients were killed and four people seriously hurt. In a second attack, on Saturday evening, an Israeli warplane flattened the home of Gaza’s police chief and damaged a nearby mosque as evening prayers ended, killing at least 18 people, officials said.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council called unanimously for a cease-fire, while Britain’s foreign minister said he will discuss cease-fire efforts with his American, French and German counterparts today.
So far, neither Israel nor Gaza’s Hamas rulers have signaled willingness to stop.
Israel carried out more than 1,200 airstrikes last week to try to diminish Hamas’ ability to fire rockets at Israel, and the chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, said Saturday there would be more strikes, especially in northern Gaza near the Israeli border.
We are going to attack there with great force in the next 24 hours due to a very large concentration of Hamas efforts in that area, he said. Late Saturday, the military said it was ordering Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate for their own safety.
Gaza’s Interior Ministry urged residents in the area to ignore Israel’s warnings and to stay in their homes, saying the announcement was Israeli psychological warfare and an attempt to create confusion.
Shortly after the Israeli announcement, an Israeli warplane struck the home of the Gaza police chief, Taysir al-Batsh, killing at least 18 people and wounding 50, said Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra.
He said worshippers were leaving the mosque after evening prayers at the time of the strike and that some people are believed to be trapped under the rubble.
Meanwhile, Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, fired nearly 700 rockets and mortars at Israel last week and said it wouldn’t be the first to cease fire.
In a sign that the conflict might widen, Israel fired into Lebanon late Saturday in response to two rockets fired from there at northern Israel. There were no injuries or damage, but Israel fears militant groups in Lebanon may try to open a second front.
Israel has said it’s acting in self-defense against rockets that have disrupted life across much of the country. It also accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s civilians as human shields by firing rockets from there.
The Israeli military said it has targeted sites with links to Hamas, including command centers, and that it issues early warnings before attacking.
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.
Before dawn Saturday, an Israeli missile hit the Palestine Charity, a center for the physically and mentally disabled in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, said its director, Jamila Alaiweh.
The center is home to nine patients, including four who were spending the weekend with their families away from the center, said Alaiweh. Of the remaining five, two were killed in the strike and three suffered serious burns and other injuries, the director said.
A caregiver was also injured, she added.