Israel warns Gaza civilians to stay away from Hamas outposts

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel warned besieged residents of the Gaza Strip on Saturday that it would soon escalate its onslaught against Hamas, including possibly a deeper push into Gaza's densely packed cities.

Israeli planes scattered flyers over Gaza City and the southern town of Rafah, near the Egyptian border, telling residents to stay away from areas that could be housing weapons and warning not to associate with members of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that Israel has been battling in Gaza for 15 days.

"We are advising Palestinians not to come close to areas of resistance so that they will not be targeted," one of the flyers read in Arabic.

Israel's security Cabinet reportedly is weighing whether to launch the next phase of its offensive, which could send ground forces into the heart of urban areas believed to be strongholds of Gaza militants. Such a move not only would expose Israeli troops to greater danger but would pose greater risks to already suffering civilians.

Hamas officials arrived in Cairo to discuss an Egyptian proposal for a 48-hour cease-fire, but the plan looked to be dead on arrival. Late Saturday Hamas's exiled leader, Khaled Meshaal, in a fiery speech from Syria, said he wouldn't accept a truce until Israel withdraws its troops from Gaza and opens the blockaded territory's border crossings.

Israeli officials have repeatedly said that fighters from Hamas, which controls Gaza, use civilians as shields and operate in the vicinity of schools and mosques. Palestinians, however, described the flyers dropped Saturday as a form of intimidation because Israeli bombardment has leveled large swathes of the coastal strip, trapping many families in their homes and making it difficult for civilians, ambulances and humanitarian workers to move around.

At least 21 more Palestinians were killed Saturday, Gaza medical officials said, including eight members of one family who were sitting outside their home. That brought the death toll in the Israeli military operation to at least 821, nearly half of them civilians, with another 3,350 people wounded, roughly half of them children.

Residents of Gaza City reported heavy fighting and said that Israeli tanks were edging closer to the city. In Rafah, which sits above a network of underground tunnels that Israel says Hamas uses to smuggle weapons in from Egypt, Israeli warplanes continued to drop bombs in an effort to destroy the tunnels.

Adding to growing international pressure on Israel to provide more protection for civilians, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said that its researchers on Friday and Saturday saw Israeli planes drop multiple bursts of white phosphorous over Gaza City.

International law allows the use of the chemical white phosphorous in wartime as a smokescreen to obscure military operations. But it can cause severe burns if it touches the skin, and Human Rights Watch said that dropping the burning projectiles over heavily populated areas could violate international humanitarian laws requiring Israel to take steps to avoid civilian casualties.

"The potential for harm to civilians is magnified by Gaza's high population density, among the highest in the world," the group said in a statement.

Israeli officials refused comment on the allegations, citing military operational security.

While Israel denies that its forces target civilians, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has called for an investigation of possible Israeli war crimes as Gaza residents in recent days have come forward with grisly stories of Israeli troops neglecting injured civilians and killing unarmed Palestinians.

Israeli military officials said that ground forces killed Amir Mansi, the head of Hamas's rocket-launching program in Gaza City. Mansi was seen firing a rocket from Gaza City and ground forces opened fire on the launch site, killing him and injuring two other militants, the Israeli military said in a statement.

More than two weeks of Israeli attacks have not stopped militants from firing rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory, however. At least 20 more rockets landed in southern Israel — including two long-range Grad rockets that struck Ashdod, about 17 miles south of Tel Aviv — but there were no serious injuries, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

In Cairo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — whose Fatah faction was expelled from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 — criticized Israel's "aggression" but called on both Israel and Hamas to accept Egypt's proposed cease-fire.

"The Egyptian proposal is right now the only one whose points are clear and defined," Abbas said after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "If any party doesn't accept it, I am sorry but they will bear the responsibility for the bloodshed."

(Hamda, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Gaza City. Bengali reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Aya Batrawy contributed from Cairo.)

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