JERUSALEM — Prompting thousands to flee, Israel warned some residents of the crowded Gaza Strip to leave their homes Sunday and then unleashed an aerial bombardment of sites it says are used by Islamic militants to launch rockets at major Israeli population centers.
About 17,000 people from the Beit Lahiya area in the northern Gaza Strip streamed for protection into United Nations-run facilities. Israeli warplanes hammered the vacated area Sunday afternoon and evening, hitting alleged launch sites and homes of members of extremist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The assault was carried out mostly by air, but the Israeli navy also reportedly fired shells from the sea.
Despite the concentrated attack, militants continued to fire rockets at a broad swath of Israel, setting off warning sirens in Tel Aviv and the coastal city of Haifa. A teenager became the second Israeli civilian to be severely wounded in six days of fighting when two rockets landed in the city of Ashkelon. No Israelis have been killed by the rocket strikes.
In Gaza, the death toll rose to at least 167, fueling international alarm over the lopsided casualty count. The U.N. says the majority of the victims have been civilians. Seventeen members of one extended family were killed late Saturday when a home and nearby mosque were hit. More than 1,000 people have been injured.
Neither side appeared to pay any heed to a unanimous statement from the U.N. Security Council calling for the fighting to stop. In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry reiterated Washington’s offer to help broker a return to the cease-fire that ended the last confrontation between Hamas and Israel in 2012, a senior State Department official said.
Netanyahu insists that no external pressure will deter Israel from continuing its offensive for as long as it deems necessary.
“We don’t know when the operation will end. It could take much longer,” Netanyahu said before a Cabinet meeting Sunday, adding that Israel would continue to act “in a patient and level-headed manner” until it achieved its goal of restoring quiet.
Israeli troops have begun massing along the border with Gaza for a possible land incursion. The government has completed its call-up of 40,000 reservists to bolster its regular forces, the military said.
In the first report of Israeli boots on the ground in Gaza, military officials confirmed a lightning raid overnight Saturday by naval commandos who crossed the border to take out a site believed to be the source of large volleys of rockets launched at cities in southern and central Israel.
The commandos went in under aerial and naval cover and reportedly killed three Palestinian militants in a shootout. Four commandos were lightly wounded, the military said.
Dan Meridor, a former Israeli intelligence minister, said that Israel should consider quitting while it’s ahead.
In an interview on Israeli television, Meridor said Israel had achieved its goal of restoring enough deterrence to quiet Gaza’s militants for an extended period. On both defensive and offensive levels, Israel is “clearly winning at this point,” but the longer it continues, the greater the risk of complications that could trigger reversals on the ground and in public opinion.
Meridor suggested that Israel announce a pause in strikes, call on Hamas to respond in kind and wait for about 10 hours. “If they agree, this is the best way to end. If they don’t, Israel will gain international legitimacy to continue,” he said.
Demilitarizing Hamas could be a long-term objective but not one likely to be achieved under fire, the former minister said.
Fears of an imminent large-scale ground invasion of Gaza rose when Israeli forces dropped leaflets on Beit Lahiya on Sunday morning telling residents to evacuate by noon to avoid being hurt in a short, temporary but hard-hitting military campaign in the area.
Mohammed Aziz Alsalimh, 47, also received a recorded message from the Israeli army on his phone advising him to seek safety elsewhere. He put his wife and nine children, mattresses, blankets and bags of clothes onto a donkey cart and drove away.
“What can I do? I cannot ignore it and risk my family,” Alsalimh said. “Two years ago, in 2012, we had to leave our house and take refuge in a U.N. school. The scene is repeated today. I pray for God to protect my family and to stop the war.”
Shortly after the noon deadline expired, Israeli warplanes hammered homes of suspected militants in Beit Lahiya in a rapid succession of strikes. More were carried out in the evening.
Thousands sought refuge in a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the agency, urged all sides to respect the status of U.N. installations.
The Egyptian government said it would open its crossing into Gaza for U.S. citizens to leave the enclave Monday. A group of Egyptian political parties called on the government in Cairo to open the crossing indefinitely to help Gazans who have relied on it for supplies to get through. The transit point has been closed since last summer, after the installation of a government in Cairo hostile to Hamas.
Israel opened its Gaza checkpoint for foreign nationals to exit the strip Sunday.
Late Sunday, a rocket was fired into Israel from Syria, but caused little or no damage. Israeli forces fired artillery in response, the military said.
More than 800 rockets have been fired at Israel since Tuesday, about 150 of them intercepted by the mobile Iron Dome missile-defense systems deployed throughout the country, military officials said. During the same period, Israel has struck more than 1,000 targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip.
One rocket launched by Palestinian militants Sunday smashed into an electricity network that supplies power to Gaza, causing a blackout affecting about 70,000 residents in the territory, the Israeli military said. The electric company said it would repair the damage and resume service when security conditions permitted.
A much-awaited concert by Canadian rocker Neil Young planned for Thursday in Tel Aviv was canceled.
Previously, Young came under heavy political pressure from activists and musicians urging him to boycott Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. On Sunday, the Israeli producer stressed that the concert was canceled for safety reasons.
Special correspondents Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Abu Alouf from Gaza City. Times staff writer Chu reported from London. Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.