Palestinian families flee as Israel steps up air strikes on Gaza Strip

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Hundreds of Palestinian families fled yesterday as Israel intensified air strikes on Hamas targets, including homes of the movement’s leaders, following failed Egyptian ceasefire efforts.

Palestinian officials claimed that four youths were killed and seven people wounded in one strike on a coastal road near a beach in the Gaza Strip.

Before the renewed bombardment, Israel had ordered tens of thousands of residents of border areas to evacuate their homes.

The Palestinian death toll in nine days of fighting rose to 204, with some 1,450 wounded, Palestinian health officials said.

On the Israeli side, one man has been killed and several people wounded since the fighting erupted on July 8.

The renewed bombings came a day after Israel initially accepted an Egyptian truce proposal that called for a halt to hostilities.

That was to be followed by talks on the terms of a longer-term ceasefire, including easing Gaza’s seven-year-old border blockade by Israel and Egypt.

Hamas rejected the plan and instead launched more rockets at Israel.

The militant group views a significant easing of the blockade as key to its survival but does not believe Egypt’s current rulers – who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo last year – can be fair brokers.

As Cairo’s effort collapsed, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Hamas will pay a high price for rejecting the truce offer.

The website of the Gaza Interior Ministry said Israel warplanes carried out dozens of air strikes before dawn yesterday, targeting 30 houses, including those of senior Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar, Jamila Shanti, Fathi Hamas and Ismail Ashkar. Zahar was a key figure in Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007

Many Hamas leaders have gone into hiding since the beginning of the Israeli offensive.

Alongside the air strikes, Israel also told tens of thousands of residents of the northern town of Beit Lahiya and the Zeitoun and Shijaiyah areas of Gaza City, all near the border with Israel, to evacuate their homes by 8am.

The warnings were delivered in automated phone calls, text messages and leaflets dropped from planes.

The Israeli military said in its message that large numbers of rockets had been launched from these areas and that Israel planned to bomb these locations.

“Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately, endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families,” the message said.

Hundreds of residents of Zeitoun and Shijaiyah were seen walking in the streets, carrying small bags with belongings.