JERUSALEM — Israel’s missile defense system intercepted four rockets over the Tel Aviv area Wednesday, after the military bombed the homes of several political leaders of the militant Islamic movement Hamas overnight and warned 100,000 residents of the Gaza Strip to evacuate their homes by 8 a.m. ahead of more airstrikes.
The warnings, distributed by leaflets, automated telephone calls and text messages, were the broadest yet and advised people in northern towns as well as some neighborhoods of Gaza City to head south.
“The IDF does not want to harm you, and your families,” the leaflets said, using the abbreviation for the Israel Defense Forces. “Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families,” the warning added.
Israel said it had struck 39 targets in Gaza overnight. Witnesses in Gaza said that a new, five-story headquarters of the Interior Ministry was reduced to rubble and that the strikes had also hit the homes of Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader; Fathi Hamad, the movement’s former interior minister; Ismail al-Ashqar, a member of the defunct parliament; and Bassem Naim, an adviser to the former prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniya.
“They are key players in the decision-making of Hamas’ terrorist machine,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said in an interview.
The renewed assault followed a six-hour pause Tuesday after Israel briefly accepted an Egyptian proposal to halt the hostilities that began July 7. Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza ignored or rejected the cease-fire initiative and launched more than 125 rockets throughout Israel all day and night.
The Palestinian death toll reached 201 Wednesday, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, after a strike on a car in the southern town of Khan Younis killed three. At least eight people were killed overnight, among them a 5-year-old girl who fell from a high spot. A funeral was set for Wednesday afternoon for Dror Khenin, 37, the first Israeli to die in the nine-day conflict. A mortar shell killed him Tuesday while he was distributing food to soldiers near a border crossing into Gaza.
“I call for securing the safety of the citizens of Israel,” said the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli radio reported. “To the best of my understanding, it is not possible to ensure summer vacation, a normal summer for our kids without a ground operation in Gaza”
“We don’t need to rule Gaza, or build settlements in Gaza,” he added. “We need to ensure that all Hamas terrorists run away, are imprisoned or will die.”
Shortly after Lieberman made his statement, he was forced to seek shelter while meeting with his Norwegian counterpart, Borge Brende, in the city of Ashkelon, according to Ynet, an online Israeli news outlet. After sirens sounded, Ynet reported, a rocket exploded nearby.
The current escalation followed rising tensions related to the June 12 abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers who were hitchhiking home from their schools in the occupied West Bank — Israel blamed Hamas for their deaths — and the July 2 kidnapping and killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian in East Jerusalem, which Israeli authorities say was a revenge attack by extremist Jews.
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, whose April reconciliation with Hamas helped lead to the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel, was scheduled to meet Wednesday with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt regarding the proposed cease-fire. Abbas planned to travel to Turkey for similar talks Friday.
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It was unclear how many Gazans were heeding the Israeli military’s call for evacuations; Hamas has urged people to stay put, calling the warnings “psychological warfare.” In the densely populated and poor neighborhoods of Zeitoun and Shejaya in Gaza City, many people appeared confused, with some seeking shelter in friends’ homes deeper inside the neighborhoods rather than leaving.
“We don’t know where we’re going, we’re going aimlessly,” said Mohammed Dalul, who was driving a donkey cart with his six children and an elderly neighbor. They carried only a canister of cooking gas and a single bag of clothes for the children.
“Nobody is looking after us,” said the neighbor, Naziha Rukhneh.
The streets were emptier than normal, but a few children flew kites and some men sat in the shade. Around noon, eight rockets were launched simultaneously from nearby; a few minutes later, the sound of a warplane was followed by that of a bomb dropping.
Ahmed Salim said he had ignored the general evacuation warning, though he had heeded a personalized one three days ago when it was sent to his brother’s cellphone. A strike hit the house 10 minutes later, said Salim, who is now staying with a neighbor.
“All of it, the four stories, are flattened,” he said. “All I have is the clothes I am wearing.”
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A Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday cited U.N. data showing that, as of Monday, more than three-quarters of the Palestinians killed were civilians, including 36 children, and that approximately 7,500 people had been displaced by the destruction of 1,255 homes. The Human Rights Watch report investigated four Israeli strikes — on the Fun Time Beach cafe in the southern city of Khan Younis; on a car carrying municipal workers in the Bureij refugee camp; and two on homes where victims included a pregnant woman and small children.
“Israel’s rhetoric is all about precision attacks, but attacks with no military target and many civilian deaths can hardly be considered precise,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said in the report. “Recent documented cases in Gaza sadly fit Israel’s long record of unlawful airstrikes with high civilian casualties.”
The report also criticized Israel’s tactic of warning residents to evacuate, saying it “does not make an otherwise unlawful attack lawful.”
Asked about the report, Lerner said Human Rights Watch was “ignoring the fact that Hamas is deeply embedded in an underground Gaza Strip,” referring to tunnels that he said were used to launch rockets. He said more than half the targets of the current operation had been concealed rocket launchers.
Enav reported from Jerusalem.