Jerusalem: Israel for the first time today launched a ground operation inside northern Gaza to silence Hamas rocket fire and thousands of Palestinians fled their homes after the Israeli military threatened to widen its assault that has killed nearly 170 people in six days.
Ignoring global calls for a ceasefire, Israeli troops - thought to be naval commandos - briefly entered Gaza early today and raided a missile launching site. This is the first time Israeli forces have acknowledged they`ve entered Gaza in what appeared to be the ground assault.
Israel has been building up its troops along the border with northern Gaza, fuelling speculation of a possible ground invasion.
During the incursion, which lasted about half an hour, both sides exchanged gunfire at the launch site, an Israeli military source said.
Four Israeli troops suffered light injuries, but all the soldiers returned home safely, the source said. The Israeli jets later dropped leaflets at Beit Lahiya, home to about 100,000 people, warning residents to evacuate their homes ahead of their "short and temporary" campaign to begin today.
"The Israeli Defense Forces intends to attack terrorists and terror infrastructures ..." the leaflets said, mentioning a list of areas that will be targeted.
"Israel is currently attacking, and will continue to attack, every area from which rockets are being launched at its territory."
More than 4,000 Gaza residents had taken refuge at eight bases of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, spokesman Chris Gunness said.
Meanwhile, around 800 Palestinians holding dual citizenship have reportedly begun leaving Gaza via Israel`s Erez Crossing.
Israel carried out overnight air strikes against Gaza`s security headquarters and police stations, in the heaviest bombardment since operations began on July 8.
A senior security official has said the operation in northern Gaza is necessary because the area accounts for far more rocket attacks than other areas.
The IDF struck 200 targets in Gaza over the past 24 hours, including civilian institutions and mosques with suspected Hamas ties. The other targets include 53 underground rocket launchers, 11 rocket production and storage centers, nine Hamas command and control centers, and five training camps.
Some 1,320 targets have been hit by the IDF since the start of the operation to stop rocket attacks on Israel.
The Israeli jets have also struck 62 buildings and 14 Hamas command rooms since Monday, holding the Islamist faction that has ruled Gaza since June 2007 responsible for the latest escalation.
Some 167 Palestinians have so far been killed and more 1,000 people - mainly civilians - have been injured in the Israeli offensive, medics in Gaza said.
In response, Palestinian militants have launched more than 800 rockets at Israel, including 130 in the last 24 hours, the Israeli military said today.
The UN Security Council urged Israel and Hamas yesterday to end their hostilities in Gaza, calling on both sides to respect "international humanitarian laws" and return to the "calm and restitution of the November 2012 ceasefire."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed "regret" over the loss of civilian lives in the bombing of Gaza, while accusing Hamas of using Palestinian civilians as "human shields".
However, he maintained that Israel will continue to "act with strength" against rocket fire emanating from Gaza. He said that the Israeli army is "conducting a vigorous military campaign" against all the militant factions in Gaza. France today condemned the Hamas rocket attacks, but also called on Israel to "show restraint" in its Gaza campaign and avoid civilian casualties.
Germany is sending Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Israel tomorrow for talks with Israelis and Palestinians to help negotiate an end to the violence. In Vatican, Pope Francis appealed for peace in Gaza during his weekly Angelus prayer, calling for "concrete gestures to build peace".