Israeli troops briefly raid Gaza as its airstrikes expand in offensive that's killed over 150

The Associated Press

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 150 Palestinians have been killed in five days of bombardment. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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By KHALED KHAZZIHA and MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH, Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Ignoring international appeals for a cease-fire, Israel widened its range of Gaza bombing targets to civilian institutions with suspected Hamas ties and deployed ground troops inside Gaza for the first time early Sunday to raid a rocket launching site in the Palestinian territory. More than 156 Palestinians have been killed.

Four Israeli soldiers were hurt in clashes during the brief incursion to destroy a rocket launching site in northern Gaza, the military said. It said the troops later returned to Israeli territory.

It was the first time that Israeli ground troops are known to have entered Gaza in the current offensive. But the operation was carried out by special forces and did not appear to be the beginning of a broad ground offensive.

Israeli airstrikes pounded targets in Gaza, with one hitting a center for the disabled and killing two patients and wounding four people, Palestinians. In a second attack Saturday night, 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.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council called unanimously for a cease-fire, but so far, neither Israel nor Gaza's Hamas rulers have signaled willingness to stop.

Israel has carried out more than 1,200 air strikes over the six-day offensive to try to diminish Hamas' ability to fire rockets at Israel. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, has fired nearly 700 rockets and mortars at Israel this week.

Israel's chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, said Saturday there would be more strikes, especially in northern Gaza near the Israeli border. Late Saturday, the military said it was ordering Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate "for their own safety."

Gaza's Interior Ministry urged residents in the area to ignore Israel's warnings and to stay in their homes, saying the announcement was Israeli "psychological warfare" and an attempt to create confusion.

In a sign that the conflict might widen, Israel fired into Lebanon late Saturday in response to two rockets fired from there at northern Israel. There were no injuries or damage, but Israel fears Lebanese militant groups may try to open a second front.

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. Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that while using human shields violates international humanitarian law, "this does not give Israel the excuse to violate international humanitarian law as well."

The Israeli military has said it has targeted sites with links to Hamas, including command centers, and that it issues early warnings before attacking. But Michaeli said civilians have been killed when Israel bombed homes of Hamas militants or when residents were unable to leave their homes quickly enough following Israeli warnings.

An army statement said that from Friday morning to Saturday morning, Israel targeted 158 targets "affiliated with Hamas terrorism" in Gaza, including dozens of rocket launchers and a mosque where Hamas stored rockets and weapons.

Israel also targeted several civilian institutions with presumed ties to Hamas, widening its range of targets. Palestinian officials said this included a technical college, a media office, a small Kuwait-funded charity and a branch of an Islamic bank.

The Israeli military did not mention these institutions in its statement Saturday, saying only that in addition to the military targets, it struck "further sites."