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Gazans flee the north fearing a major Israeli crackdown

Israel hit the Gaza Strip with air strikes and artillery fire on the seventh day of its offensive and as diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed intensified.

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Israel hit the Gaza Strip with air strikes and artillery fire early Monday on the seventh day of its offensive and as diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed intensified. World powers prepared to meet over the spiralling violence as the Palestinian death toll from the punishing Israeli air campaign hit 172 with another 1,230 people wounded, the emergency services said.

Fearing for their lives, about 17,000 people have taken shelter in installations of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, the agency said in a statement. Despite increasing calls for a ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was hitting Hamas "with growing force", warning there was no end in sight. "We do not know when this operation will end," he told ministers.

US Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Netanyahu to renew a US offer to help mediate a truce and he "highlighted the US concern about escalating tensions on the ground," a senior State Department official said. Kerry also said that he was engaged with regional leaders "to help to stop the rocket fire so calm can be restored and civilian casualties prevented".

On the Palestinian side, president Mahmud Abbas said he would ask UN chief Ban Ki-moon to "put the State of Palestine under the United Nations (UN) international protection system" in order to address the violence in Gaza. As the death toll from the six-day campaign rose, the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said most of the victims were civilians, putting their number at more than 130, among them 35 children and 26 women. It also said Israel had hit 147 homes and badly damaged hundreds of others.

So far, no Israelis have been killed, although militants in Gaza have pounded the south and centre of the country with about 715 rockets since the fighting began on July 8, an army spokeswoman told AFP late Sunday. Around 160 had been intercepted, she said. For the first time during the Israeli operation, a rocket fired from Syria hit the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan heights but landed on empty ground, causing no casualties.

Israel responded with artillery fire at Syrian army positions, the Israeli military said. Four rockets fired from southern Lebanon struck northern Israel early Monday, Lebanese security sources said. No casualties were reported in Israel and the army responded with artillery fire. An AFP correspondent in southern Lebanon reported more than 30 shells were fired, but there was no information yet on casualties.

Early Sunday, Israeli naval commandos staged a brief ground assault in northern Gaza on a mission to destroy longer-range rockets, with the army warning residents to leave the area ahead of a major assault on the sector. Hamas told Gazans to ignore the Israeli warnings.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Israeli military official said the area was rife with rocket launchers and would be targeted further. In northern Gaza, even before the army's warnings went out, thousands of residents of the blockaded coastal strip were fleeing after a night of traumatic violence, an AFP correspondent reported. "It was the middle of the night, and I gathered the children, they were so afraid," said Samari al-Atar, breaking down in tears as she described how her family fled barefoot with shooting all around. 

Saturday's death toll was the highest yet with 56 people killed, including 18 people who died in a single strike on a house in Gaza City, medics said. Eight people were killed in air strikes on Sunday and another two died early Monday of injuries received in earlier raids.

Neither side has shown any interest in talk of a ceasefire, with top diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and the United States due to discuss truce efforts during a meeting in Vienna. Pope Francis appealed to world leaders for both prayer and diplomacy to halt the bloodshed, while the German and Italian foreign ministers were both poised to head to the region to join truce efforts, their offices said.

With Palestinian civilians bearing the brunt of the violence, clashes erupted in central Paris as thousands of people protested against Israel and in support of Gazans. Demonstrators hurled projectiles onto a cordon of police who responded with tear gas. Earlier, protesters rallied across Asia to condemn the Israeli offensive, with 3,000 gathering in Sydney and hundreds more in Hong Kong, New Delhi and Jakarta.

Israel has warned that preparations are under way for a possible ground incursion, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying a decision was expected by Sunday. But Israeli media said that a meeting of Netanyahu's security cabinet ended Sunday night without giving the order for ground operations.

"It is obvious that Israel is in no hurry for the operation's ground phase," commentator Amos Harel wrote earlier in Haaretz newspaper, saying the aim was to "first exhaust diplomatic options".

The latest escalation began on June 12 when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, triggering a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank and an uptick of rocket fire from Gaza, which worsened after a Palestinian teen was killed by Jewish extremists on July 2.

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