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Palestinians flee their homes to take shelter at the United Nations school in Gaza City, Sunday, July 13, 2014. Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening campaign against militant rocket fire that's seen more than 160 Palestinians killed. Israel accuses Hamas of using Gaza's civilians as human shields by firing rockets from there. Critics say Israel's heavy bombardment of one of the most densely populated territories in the world is itself the main factor putting civilians at risk. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Thousands of Gazans flee homes as Israel promises to press the fight against Hamas
First Published Jul 13 2014 08:51 pm • Last Updated Jul 13 2014 08:51 pm

Gaza City, Gaza Strip • Tens of thousands of panicked residents fled their homes in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday after the Israeli military dropped leaflets from the sky warning those who stayed behind that they were risking their lives because a large, intense operation was imminent.

Residents in Gaza were whipsawed by growing anxiety and frustration. More than 17,000 people poured into makeshift shelters as Israeli commandos entered the coastal enclave early Sunday to knock out a Hamas rocket-launch site. A brief gun battle with Hamas militants ensued and left four Israeli soldiers lightly wounded.

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The brief incursion by commandos followed the single deadliest Israeli bombing of the six-day campaign.

Israeli missiles hit a house where Gaza’s police chief, Tayseer al-Batsh, was praying Saturday night. The explosions killed 18 members of his extended family, including six children, and sent the top Hamas law-enforcement officer into intensive care, where he was clinging to life Sunday.

The latest violence in Gaza came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel has no interest in halting its assault. Israel’s objective, he said at his weekly cabinet meeting, is to inflict "a significant blow on Hamas" that will yield "the restoration of quiet for a long period."

That goal closely tracks Israel’s ambition in two previous offensives against Hamas - in the winter of 2008-2009 and in late 2012 - both of which succeeded in setting back the Islamist movement’s capabilities, but not for very long. In each case, Israel won just a few years of relative calm, even as Hamas’s arsenal and the range of its rockets expanded.

The cycle has come to be known in Israel as "mowing the lawn" - a temporary disruption of Hamas’s ability and will to fire rockets.

Pressure is growing in Israel to make sure that this time is different.

"The army should not stop until they wipe out Hamas," said Avner Peretz, 46, just minutes after the windows in his brother-in-law’s house were blown out by a Hamas rocket attack in the southern Israeli town of Netivot over the weekend. "The last two conflicts, we came out looking like the losers. This time, we need to be the winner."

So far, there’s no doubt that Israel has inflicted far more damage than Hamas has, but that’s consistently true in this deeply asymmetrical fight.

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There have been 166 residents of Gaza killed in the current Israeli operation, including 36 children and 24 women, according to the Gazan Health Ministry. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the dead are civilians.

Hamas and its allies have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel - including 130 on Sunday - but most have either landed in open areas or been shot down by Israel’s sophisticated anti-missile system, Iron Dome. Several Israelis have been seriously injured by the rocket fire, but none have been killed.

Israel Radio reported late Sunday that two rockets were fired at Israel from Syria, apparently from Syrian army positions. Israel responded with artillery fire.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency on Sunday called the situation in Gaza "devastating and unpredictable."

In central Gaza, where Israeli missiles hit the house where the police chief was staying Saturday, there are 17 fresh graves, the bodies marked by mounds of earth, with cinderblock for headstones.

The police chief may not have been widely liked in Gaza - his police are aggressive and zealous in their defense of Hamas - but he was respected. The incidence of ordinary crime in Gaza is low.

One of his nephews, Ahmed al-Batsh, 26, lay in a hospital bed in Gaza, his head swaddled in bandages and his neck and back peppered with shrapnel. "More will die," he said.

He blamed the United States for supplying Israel with $3 billion a year in military aid. "These bombs are bought by America," he said, staring through one good eye.

Israeli officials and analysts say there’s little chance that Israel will try to destroy Hamas entirely, given the enormous cost and risk involved. But they say Israel has several key advantages it lacked the last two times it traded blows with Hamas.

Hamas is now far more isolated internationally. The Gaza leaders have alienated their former patron in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad, by siding with that country’s rebels.

And Hamas lost its closest ally last year when Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president of Egypt, was ousted and replaced by a military-backed government that sees Hamas much the same way Israel does: as an enemy.

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