Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time today as its military warned Gazans to evacuate as part of a widening offensive that has killed more than 160 Palestinians.

Neither Israel nor Palestinian militants show signs of agreeing to a ceasefire, despite calls by the United Nations Security Council and others to end the increasingly bloody six-day offensive. With Israel massing tanks and soldiers at Gaza’s borders, some fear that could signal a wider ground offensive.

“We don’t know when the operation will end,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu told a Cabinet meeting. “It might take a long time.”

Israel ready to launch ground offensive

Earlier Israeli troops launched a brief raid into northern Gaza to destroy what it described as a rocket-launching site, an operation the military said left four soldiers slightly wounded.

The Israeli air force later dropped leaflets warning residents to evacuate their homes ahead of what Israel’s military spokesman described as a “short and temporary” campaign against northern Gaza. The area is home to at least 100,000 people.

It was not clear whether the attack would be confined to stepped-up airstrikes or whether it might include a sizeable ground offensive – something that Israel has so far been reluctant to undertake.

Israel ready to launch ground offensive

As the ultimatum drew near, hundreds fled Beit Lahiya, one of the communities the Israeli announcement affected.

Ignoring international appeals for a ceasefire, Israel widened its range of Gaza bombing targets on Saturday to include civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties. One strike hit a centre for the disabled, killing two patients and wounding four people. In a second attack, an Israeli warplane flattened the home of Gaza police chief Taysir al-Batsh and damaged a nearby mosque as evening prayers ended, killing at least 18 people, 17 of whom were al-Batsh family members. Fifty were wounded, including al-Batsh himself.

Israel ready to launch ground offensive

Today, Palestinians with foreign passports began leaving Gaza through the Erez border crossing. Israel, which is cooperating in the evacuation, says 800 Palestinians living in Gaza have passports from countries including Australia, the UKand the U.S.

Israel has launched more than 1,300 air strikes since the offensive began, said military spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner. Palestinian militants have launched more than 800 rockets at Israel, including 130 in the last 24 hours, the Israeli military said.

Israel has said it’s acting in self-defence 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.

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