GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Fighting between Israel and Gaza militants raged on Monday despite claims of new cease-fire efforts as hundreds of Israelis living in communities near the coastal strip were fleeing their homes following a deadly mortar attack over the weekend.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said it is helping anxious Israelis leave homes close to the war zone in what is effectively the government’s first large-scale voluntary evacuation effort in the nearly eight weeks of fighting.
There has so far been no end in sight to the war, which has already killed more than 2,100 Palestinians since the fighting erupted on July 8. On the Israeli side, 68 people have been killed, all but four of them soldiers. At least seven Palestinians were reported killed in new airstrikes Monday, and at least 60 rockets were fired from Gaza onto Israel.
The latest escalation in the conflict erupted last week after a six-day temporary truce collapsed. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said there were new efforts underway Monday to reach an extended cease-fire agreement, but neither side seemed to be easing its attacks.
While the Israeli public has widely supported Israel’s campaign to halt rocket attacks out of Gaza, the government has come under criticism for its inability to stop the fire and anger has risen, especially following the death of a 4-year-old boy who was killed Friday when a Palestinian mortar landed in Nahal Oz, a kibbutz near the Gaza border.
Israel’s air raid sirens and rocket-defense system are ill equipped to deal with mortar fire, which is fired from short ranges, giving little time for people to scramble for cover.
“It looks like we will not return to Nahal Oz, no way,” Gila Tragerman, the mother of the Israeli boy killed in the mortar attack, told Army Radio on Monday.
Livnat Ginzbourg, a spokeswoman for Israeli communities along the Gaza border, said some 100 families were leaving their homes on Monday, following a similar number the previous day.
It is another major exodus of residents during the fighting. Many people fled last month after the discovery of Hamas tunnels that had been burrowed into Israel. Residents were encouraged to return home after Israel said it destroyed the tunnels and a preliminary truce was reached.
Ginzbourg said some families had stayed in Israeli government-funded accommodations during the recent war, but Monday’s evacuation was the first time the government was coordinating and financing temporary accommodation for all families wishing to flee. She estimated that 70 to 80 percent of residents in communities closest to the Gaza border have fled, mostly families with young children.
Defense Ministry spokesman Jonathan Mosery said it was not a mandatory evacuation, but the government was assisting Israelis who live up to five kilometers (3 miles) from the Gaza border, paying for them to stay at youth hostels and other accommodations in areas farther away.
The need to uproot families yet again, just days before the start of the school year, has led to widespread exasperation.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Israeli residents of the Gaza border area, saying the government would “do our utmost to help you through these difficult days” and promising an “extraordinary package of assistance for your communities.”
The Israeli military said it carried out at least 16 airstrikes on Gaza early Monday, targeting a mosque it said was used to store weapons and another it said militants used as a meeting point.
The military also said that Palestinian militants from the densely populated strip fired at least 60 rockets into Israel on Monday. Three rockets were intercepted midair and the others landed in open areas.
Palestinian health officials said seven people were killed, including a 42-year woman who was killed by tank fire in northern Gaza.
The latest exchanges came a day after Netanyahu warned that the Israeli military campaign in Gaza could go into September.
Since the fighting began, Israel has launched some 5,000 airstrikes at Gaza and bombarded targets with tank and artillery fire, while Gaza militants have fired close to 4,000 rockets and mortars, according to the Israeli military.
The Gaza war stems from the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank by Hamas operatives in June, which triggered a massive Israeli arrest campaign in the West Bank, followed by an increase in rocket fire from Gaza. In an apparent revenge attack, a Palestinian youth was seized and slain in early July.
Israel first launched an air campaign July 8, then sent in ground troops nine days later. It says it is targeting sites linked to militants, including rocket launchers, command centers and weapons depots. The U.N. says about 75 percent of the Palestinians killed have been civilians.
Several rounds of indirect talks in Cairo between Israel and a Palestinian delegation that included Hamas have collapsed, along with temporary cease-fires that accompanied them.
In the West Bank Monday, hospital officials and relatives said 14-year-old Hassan Ashour died from his wounds after being shot Friday near the West Bank city of Nablus by Israeli troops clashing with rock-throwing demonstrators protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
Estrin reported from Jerusalem.