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Associated Press
Palestinians offer their prayers over the grave of a member of the al-Batsh family killed in Saturday’s Israeli airstrike. Israel is determined to stop Hamas.

Thousands flee Gaza before strike

Israel warns of destructive operation to defeat Hamas

– Tens of thousands of panicked residents fled their homes in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday after the Israeli military dropped leaflets from the sky warning those who stayed behind that they were risking their lives because a large, intense operation was imminent.

Residents in Gaza were whipsawed by growing anxiety and frustration. More than 17,000 people poured into makeshift shelters as Israeli commandos entered the coastal enclave early Sunday to knock out a Hamas rocket-launch site. A brief gun battle with Hamas militants ensued and left four Israeli soldiers lightly wounded.

The brief incursion by commandos followed the single deadliest Israeli bombing of the six-day campaign.

Israeli missiles hit a house where Gaza’s police chief, Tayseer al-Batsh, was praying Saturday night. The explosions killed 18 members of his extended family, including six children, and sent the top Hamas law-enforcement officer into intensive care, where he was clinging to life Sunday.

The latest violence in Gaza came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel has no interest in halting its assault. Israel’s objective, he said at his weekly cabinet meeting, is to inflict “a significant blow on Hamas” that will yield “the restoration of quiet for a long period.”

That goal closely tracks Israel’s ambition in two previous offensives against Hamas – in the winter of 2008-2009 and in late 2012 – both of which succeeded in setting back the Islamist movement’s capabilities, but not for very long.

In each case, Israel won just a few years of relative calm, even as Hamas’s arsenal and the range of its rockets expanded.

The cycle has come to be known in Israel as “mowing the lawn” – a temporary disruption of Hamas’s ability and will to fire rockets.

Pressure is growing in Israel to make sure this time is different.

“The army should not stop until they wipe out Hamas,” said Avner Peretz, 46, just minutes after the windows in his brother-in-law’s house were blown out by a Hamas rocket attack in the southern Israeli town of Netivot over the weekend. “The last two conflicts, we came out looking like the losers. This time, we need to be the winner.”

So far, there’s no doubt that Israel has inflicted far more damage than Hamas has, but that’s consistently true in this deeply asymmetrical fight.

There have been 166 residents of Gaza killed in the current Israeli operation, including 36 children and 24 women, according to the Gazan Health Ministry. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the dead are civilians.

Hamas and its allies have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel – including 130 on Sunday – but most have either landed in open areas or been shot down by Israel’s sophisticated anti-missile system, Iron Dome.

Several Israelis have been seriously injured by the rocket fire, but none has been killed.

Israel Radio reported late Sunday that two rockets were fired at Israel from Syria, apparently from Syrian army positions.

Israel responded with artillery fire.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency on Sunday called the situation in Gaza “devastating and unpredictable.”