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Israel calls for north Gaza residents to evacuate after brief ground raid as offensive widens

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    Palestinian medics place an injured man on a stretcher in the Shifa hospital after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City on Saturday, July 12, 2014. Palestinian officials said Israeli airstrike hit a group of people sitting in front of a closed shop killing several, raising the Palestinian death toll to more than 120 during an Israeli offensive that showed no signs of slowing down. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

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    Israelis stand on a hill at the Israeli town of Sderot, overlooking the Gaza Strip, as they watch smoke rising following an Israeli strike on Gaza, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire, Israel on Saturday widened its range of Gaza bombing targets to civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties and announced it would hit northern Gaza "with great force" to prevent rocket attacks from there on Israel. More than 156 Palestinians have been killed in five days of bombardment. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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    Palestinians carry the body of Islamic Jihad militant Mohammed Sowelim, who was killed in an Israeli air strike, during his funeral in Jabaliya refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque and a center for the disabled where two women were killed Saturday, raising the Palestinian death toll from the offensive to more than 120, Palestinian officials said. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

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    Israeli soldiers gathering next to their mobile artillery unit begin their day at a position on Israel Gaza border, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Israeli airstrikes overnight targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque its military says concealed the militant group's weapons, in an offensive that showed no signs of slowing down. Israel launched its campaign five days ago to stop relentless rocket fire on its citizens. While there have been no fatalities in Israel, Palestinian officials said overnight attacks raised the death toll there to over 120, with more than 920 wounded. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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    Columns of smoke rise following Israeli strikes on Gaza Strip.

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    An Israeli hugs his child outside a shelter as a siren warning of incoming rockets is heard around the southern city of Beersheba, Israel, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Israeli airstrikes overnight targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque its military says concealed the militant group's weapons, in an offensive that showed no signs of slowing down. Israel launched its campaign five days ago to stop relentless rocket fire on its citizens. While there have been no fatalities in Israel, Palestinian officials said overnight attacks raised the death toll there to over 120, with more than 920 wounded. (AP Photo/Tsafrir

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    Israeli soldiers on a mobile artillery unit fire a shell towards Gaza at a position on the Israel-Gaza border, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Israeli airstrikes overnight targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque its military says concealed the militant group's weapons, in an offensive that showed no signs of slowing down. Israel launched its campaign five days ago to stop relentless rocket fire on its citizens. While there have been no fatalities in Israel, Palestinian officials said overnight attacks raised the death toll there to over 120, with more than 920 wounded. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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    Palestinian firefighters try to extinguish a cargo terminal at Karni Crossing between Israel and Gaza after it was shelled by Israeli tanks, according to terminal's employees, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Palestinian officials said Israeli airstrike hit a group of people sitting in front of a closed shop killing several, raising the Palestinian death toll to more than 120 during an Israeli offensive that showed no signs of slowing down. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

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    Palestinians mourn their relatives in the morgue of the Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Saturday, July 12, 2014. Over a dozen Palestinians were killed in an Israeli strike on a house, hospital officials said. Ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire, Israel on Saturday widened its range of Gaza bombing targets to civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties and announced it would hit northern Gaza "with great force" to prevent rocket attacks from there on Israel. More than 150 Palestinians have been killed in five days of bombardment. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

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Columns of smoke rise following Israeli strikes on Gaza Strip.

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JERUSALEM — Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern Gaza residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening campaign against militant rocket fire that’s killed more than 160 Palestinians.

Neither Israel nor Palestinian militants show signs of agreeing to a cease-fire, despite calls by the United Nations Security Council and others to end the increasingly bloody six-day offensive. With Israel massing tanks and soldiers at Gaza’s borders, some fear that could signal a wider ground offensive that would cause heavy casualties.

Early Sunday, Israeli troops launched a brief raid into northern Gaza to destroy what it described as a rocket-launching site, an operation the military said left four soldiers slightly wounded.

The Israeli air force later dropped leaflets warning residents to evacuate their homes ahead of what Israel’s military spokesman described as a “short and temporary” campaign against northern Gaza to begin sometime after 12 p.m. (0900 GMT). The area is home to some 100,000 people.

It was not clear whether the attack would be confined to stepped-up airstrikes or whether it might include a sizeable ground offensive — something that Israel has so far been reluctant to undertake.

Ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire, Israel widened its range of Gaza bombing targets Saturday to include civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties. One strike hit a center for the disabled, killing two patients and wounding four people. In a second attack, an Israeli warplane flattened the home of Gaza police chief Taysir al-Batsh and damaged a nearby mosque as evening prayers ended, killing at least 18 people and wounding 50, officials said.

On Sunday, Palestinians with foreign passports began leaving Gaza through the Erez border crossing. Israel, which is cooperating in the evacuation, says 800 Palestinians living in Gaza have passports from countries including Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

U.S. citizen Ahmed Mohana said he had mixed feelings about leaving friends and family behind in the troubled Gaza Strip.

“It is very hard, it is very tough,” he said. “We are leaving our family, our relatives and brothers and sisters in this horrible situation —we have to do what we have to do.”

Israel has launched more than 1,300 air strikes since the offensive began, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Sunday. Palestinian militants have launched more than 800 rockets at Israel, including 130 in the last 24 hours, the Israeli military said Sunday. Several Israelis have been wounded, but there have been no fatalities.

Israel has said it’s acting in self-defense against rockets that have disrupted life across much of the country. It also 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.

The offensive marks the heaviest fighting since a similar eight-day campaign in November 2012 to stop Gaza rocket fire. The outbreak of violence follows the kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack, and wide-ranging Israeli moves against Hamas militants and infrastructure in the West Bank.

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