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Israel steps up Gaza bombardment, Palestinians flee as fears of invasion grow

Days of fighting between Israel and Hamas — the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip — have killed more than 100 Palestinians, including 31 children, and eight Israelis.
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Israel stepped up its bombardment of Gaza early Friday as tanks and artillery joined aerial attacks, an escalation that intensified fears of an all-out invasion.

Days of fighting between Israel and Hamas — the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip — have killed at least 119 Palestinians, including 31 children, and eight Israelis, including one child.

Many fled their homes in the tiny, impoverished enclave, home to 2 million Palestinians, as ground forces joined Israel's intensifying response and a wave of Arab-Jewish communal unrest swept the country for another night.

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Israel said it carried out a 40-minute, predawn barrage of 160 strikes aimed at destroying a vast network of tunnels used by Hamas, which it and the United States classify as a terrorist organization.

Hamas continued firing rockets into Israel. It has launched 1,800 missiles this week, a barrage that has wounded hundreds of Israelis and sent people fleeing into bomb shelters in Tel Aviv and other cities.

Israel has called up 9,000 reservists and massed troops along its border with Gaza. It has been in "various stages of preparing ground operations" this week, according to a military spokesman.

"They attacked us on our holiday, they attacked our capital, they sent missiles to our city, they pay a heavy price for it," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday, referring to Hamas. "It's not over yet. We will do everything to restore security to our city and our citizens."

There was confusion late Thursday after the Israeli military announced "ground troops" were attacking the area and media reports suggested Israeli soldiers had entered Gaza itself. It later clarified that this wasn't the case, but the incident highlighted the level of concern internationally that such a development — evoking the weekslong 2014 war in Gaza — may be imminent.

The latest strikes came as Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations pushed for a cease-fire in talks that showed no signs of progress.

Meanwhile, a fourth night of violent unrest flared in mixed-ethnicity towns across Israel.

Overnight, five Israeli police officers were injured in clashes and 750 people were arrested, according to the country's police.

The violence has seen rival Arab and Jewish mobs carrying out beatings and torching cars in an explosion of communal unrest that led President Reuven Rivlin to warn against a "senseless civil war."

In Lod, a city near Tel Aviv that has seen some of the worst clashes, a synagogue was badly damaged after "rioters" set its door and a nearby palm tree on fire, according to a police spokeswoman.

Netanyahu demanded this violence should "stop" in a meeting with police in the city. "Everyone should condemn it, any form of violence, of Arabs against Jews and also of Jews against Arabs," he said.

Meanwhile five people were killed in the occupied West Bank amid clashes in several cities involving Israeli security forces Friday, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israeli tanks also fired warning shots at protesters who crossed into Israel from Lebanon, according the Israeli military.

As the conflict in Gaza escalated further, Palestinians say there is no escape from the violence in this densely populated territory, which is blockaded to the north and the east by Israel and the south by Egypt.

In addition to the 119 people who have been killed, some 830 are injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. The eight Israelis, including one Israeli Defense Forces soldier, were killed by Hamas missiles, officials there said.

People living along Gaza's northern and eastern borders sought refuge Friday in temporary shelters in central Gaza City, The Associated Press reported.

They arrived in pickup trucks, on donkeys and by foot at schools run by the United Nations, hauling pillows and pans, blankets and bread. Men lugged large plastic bags and women carried infants on their shoulders, cramming into classrooms.

Fatou Bensouda, a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said in an interview with Reuters on Friday that she was looking at the conflict "very seriously" and warned it could be folded into an ongoing ICC investigation into the 2014 Gaza war.

It is examining whether Israeli forces committed war crimes when they swept into the heavily urbanized enclave.

It is also probing whether Hamas and other armed factions carried out intentional attacks on civilians with rocket fire into Israel, as well as torture and killings of Palestinians by Palestinian security services.

Israel rejects membership of the court and accuses Bensouda's office of anti-Semitic bias.

President Joe Biden called for a de-escalation of the violence Thursday and said he expected to have more talks with leaders in the region.

The airstrikes and rocket attacks being exchanged by Israel and Hamas followed weeks of unrest in Jerusalem that saw clashes between Israeli police, Palestinian worshippers and nationalist Israelis. Another thread of disquiet had been the plans to evict Palestinian families from land claimed by Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem.

Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem on Monday after days of clashes at the holy city's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and Israel responded with attacks on Gaza.

"We're hunting terrorists," Lt. Col. Johnathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told a briefing Friday.

"We try to focus our firing and minimize civilian casualties. It's a complex and challenging operation," he said, adding that the military has mapped "sensitive targets" such as hospitals. "We try not to hit those," he added, but "sometimes Hamas uses these facilities on purpose."

At least one top Hamas commander was among those killed by the airstrikes, according to the group's military wing.

Conricus said Israel had killed at least 30 "terrorists."