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Heeding Israeli warning, thousands flee from northern Gaza Strip

| Sunday, July 13, 2014, 9:06 p.m.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Thousands of Palestinian residents of the northern Gaza Strip fled their homes on Sunday and sought safety in U.N. shelters, heeding warnings from the Israeli military about plans to bomb the area on the sixth day of an offensive against Hamas that has killed more than 160 people.

The fighting showed no signs of slowing, despite international calls for a cease-fire and growing concerns about the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza.

The U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, said about 17,000 Palestinians have headed to special shelters set up in 20 United Nations schools in Gaza.

“The fact that in a span of almost a few hours, 10,000 people sought refuge in these 15 schools is an indication to the difficult situation on the ground,” said Sami Mshasha, a UNRWA spokesman.

Some raced by in pickups, waving white flags.

“Once we received the message, we felt scared to stay in our homes. We want to leave,” said resident Mohammed Abu Halemah.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and voiced America's “readiness” to help restore calm, while Egypt, a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, continued to work behind the scenes.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate cease-fire in a statement issued by his spokesman's office.

Ban “strongly believes that it is in the interest of both sides that steps toward dangerous escalation be replaced with immediate measures to end the fighting, thus preventing further casualties and greater risks to regional peace and security,” the statement read.

Ban noted that despite the U.N. Security Council's demand for a cease-fire, “the situation in and around the Gaza Strip appears to be worsening,” it said.

Amid the diplomacy, Israel said it was pushing forward with preparations for a possible ground invasion of Gaza. Thousands of troops have massed along the border in recent days.

“We don't know when the operation will end,” Netanyahu told his cabinet. “It might take a long time.” He said the military was prepared “for all possibilities.”

Israel began the offensive on Tuesday in what it said was a response to heavy rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza. The military said it has launched more than 1,300 airstrikes, while Palestinian militants have fired more than 800 rockets at Israel. The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said 166 people have been killed, including dozens of civilians. There have been no Israeli fatalities, though several people have been wounded, including a teenage boy who was seriously hurt by rocket shrapnel.

Shortly before nightfall, Israel carried out a series of airstrikes in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia. Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV station reported four airstrikes in a 10-minute span, and a large plume of black smoke could be seen over the area from the Israeli border. There were no reports of casualties.

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