Israel launched the offensive last Saturday in a bid to halt weeks of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza after a six-month old cease-fire fell apart. The operation has dealt a heavy blow to militant Islamic group Hamas, but has failed to stop the rocket fire. New attacks Friday struck apartment buildings in a southern Israeli city but no serious injuries were reported.
The Israeli military called at least some of the houses of Hamas leaders ahead of time to warn inhabitants of a possible strike. In some cases, it also fired a sound bomb to warn away civilians before destroying the homes in a missile attack, Palestinians and Israeli defense officials said, according to the Associated Press.
The mosque destroyed Friday was known as a Hamas stronghold, and the army said it was used to store weapons.
More than 400 Gazans have been killed and some 1,700 have been wounded in the Israeli campaign, Gaza health officials have told news agencies. The number of combatants and civilians killed is unclear.
Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have also died in the rocket attacks, which have reached deeper into Israel than ever before.
In Gaza City, a few hundred foreign passport holders boarded buses in the pre-dawn hours to leave the Strip, with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, their governments and Israeli compliance.
“The situation is very bad. We are afraid for our children,” Ilona Hamdiya, a woman from Moldova married to a Palestinian told the AP. “We are very grateful to our embassy.”
The exit of foreigners raised fears that Israel was planning a broader ground attack.
Israel has been building up troops and military equipment on Gaza’s border in a possible signal that a ground incursion could be imminent. International pressure, however, is building for a cease-fire that would bring an end to the fighting.
Israel appears to be offering an opening for new diplomatic efforts, saying it would consider a halt to the fighting if international monitors were brought in to track compliance with any truce with Hamas.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Friday that the United States is continuing to work with the international community to bring about a “durable and sustainable” cease-fire in the Mideast.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected in the region next week to push for a halt to the violence, although Rice said she has no plans to travel to the region.
Rice charged Hamas that “has used Gaza as a launching pad” for firing rockets into the Jewish state and that Palestinians living in Gaza have had “a very bad daily life,” the AP reported.
Meanwhile, thousands of people Friday demonstrated against Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip in widespread protests stretching across the Middle East, Asia, Africa and even some scattered protests in Europe.