JERUSALEM / GAZA: Israeli navy commandos launched a ground operation overnight in the north of the Gaza Strip, the first since the offensive against Hamas began, Israeli public radio said early Sunday.
The brief incursion targeted a rocket launcher site, it said. The armed branch of Hamas confirmed that Israeli commandos had exchanged gunfire with some Palestinian fighters.
A military spokesperson later said four Israeli soldiers had been lightly wounded during the operation.
“During the mission a gunfight broke out, started by some terrorists operating at the site, during which four Israeli soldiers were lightly wounded,” said the spokesperson who declined to give further details on the operation.
The Ezzedine al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, confirmed the exchange of gunfire “between our fighters and soldiers of the Zionist navy which tried to penetrate the zone of Sudanyia” in northwest Gaza.
It was the first ground operation in Gaza by the Israeli military since the start of its offensive, which has left over 150 Palestinians dead, on Tuesday.
Thousands fled their homes in a Gaza town on Sunday after Israel warned them to leave ahead of threatened attacks on rocket-launching sites.
“Those who fail to comply with the instructions will endanger their lives and the lives of their families. Beware,” read a leaflet dropped by the Israeli military in the town of Beit Lahiya, near the border with Israel.
Militants in the Gaza Strip kept up rockets salvoes deep into the Jewish state and the worst bout of Israel-Palestinian bloodshed in two years showed no signs of abating despite mounting international pressure to cease fire.
A Palestinian woman and a girl, aged 3, were killed in Israeli air strikes early on Sunday, Gaza’s Health Ministry said. Hours earlier, the ministry said 18 people were killed when the house of Gaza’s police chief was bombed from the air in the single deadliest attack of Israel’s offensive.
A long-range salvo on Sunday morning triggered air raid sirens at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion international airport, which has not been hit in the hostilities and where flights have been operating normally, and some city suburbs.
On Saturday night, Hamas made good on a threat to send rockets streaking toward Tel Aviv at 9pm and other areas in heavily populated central Israel.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis sought shelter as Palestinians in the streets of Gaza City cheered the launchings, the biggest strike yet on the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
Those rockets and the ones unleashed on Sunday were intercepted by the Israeli-built, and partly US-funded, Iron Dome missile defense system that has proved effective against Hamas’s most powerful weaponry.
No one has been killed by the more than 800 rockets the Israeli military said has been fired since the offensive began, and during Saturday night’s barrage, customers in Tel Aviv beachfront cafes shouted their approval as they watched the projectiles being shot out of the sky.
Israeli leaflets dropped on Beit Lahiya, where 70,000 Palestinians live, said civilians in three of its 10 neighborhoods were “requested to evacuate their residences” and move south, deeper into the Gaza Strip, by 12pm.
The Gaza Interior Ministry, in a statement on Hamas radio, dismissed the Israeli warnings as “psychological warfare” and instructed those who left their homes to return and others to stay put.
The warnings cited roads that residents could use safely and said Israeli forces intended to attack “every area from where rockets are being launched”. The military did not say in the leaflet whether the strike would include ground troops.
It was the first time Israel had warned Palestinians to vacate dwellings in such a wide area. Previous warnings, by telephone or so-called “knock-on-the-door” missiles without explosive warheads, had been directed at individual homes slated for attack.
At least 4,000 people fled Beit Lahiya and crowded into eight UN-run schools in Gaza City on Sunday, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said.
Some arrived on donkey carts filled with children, luggage and mattresses, while others came by car or taxi. One man, still in his pajamas, said some residents had received phone calls warning them to clear out.
“What could we do? We had to run in order to save the lives of our children,” said Salem Abu Halima, 25, a father of two.