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Thousands of Palestinians flee northern Gaza

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Palestinians flee their homes to take shelter at the United Nations school in Gaza City, Sunday, July 13, 2014. Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening campaign against militant rocket fire that’s seen more than 160 Palestinians killed. Israel 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. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Palestinians flee their homes to take shelter at the United Nations school in Gaza City, Sunday, July 13, 2014. Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening campaign against militant rocket fire that’s seen more than 160 Palestinians killed. Israel 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. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Palestinian mourners gather around the grave of a member of the al-Batsh family who were killed in Saturday’s Israeli airstrike, during a funeral procession in Gaza City on Sunday, July 13, 2014. The strike hit the home of Gaza police chief Taysir al-Batsh and damaged a nearby mosque as evening prayers ended Saturday, killing at least 18 people, wounding 50 and leaving some people believed to be trapped under the rubble, said Palestinian Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Palestinians take shelter at the United Nations school after they fled their homes in Gaza City, Sunday, July 13, 2014. Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern Gaza residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening offensive that has killed more than 160 Palestinians. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Palestinian youths play on a school desk after they fled their homes with their family to take shelter at the United Nations school in Gaza City, Sunday, July 13, 2014. Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern Gaza residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening offensive that has killed more than 160 Palestinians. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

An elderly Palestinian takes shelter at the United Nations school after his family fled their homes in Gaza City on Sunday, July 13, 2014. Israel briefly deployed ground troops inside the Gaza Strip for the first time early Sunday as its military warned northern Gaza residents to evacuate their homes, part of a widening offensive that has killed more than 160 Palestinians. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Palestinian residents of the northern Gaza Strip fled their homes on Sunday and sought safety in U.N. shelters, heeding warnings from the Israeli military about impending plans to bomb the area in the sixth day of an offensive against Hamas that has killed more than 160 people.

The fighting showed no signs of slowing, despite international calls for a cease-fire and growing concerns about the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and voiced U.S. “readiness” to help restore calm, while Egypt, a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, continued to work behind the scenes.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate cease-fire in a statement issued late Sunday by his spokesman’s office.

Ban “strongly believes that it is in the interest of both sides that steps toward dangerous escalation be replaced with immediate measures to end the fighting, thus preventing further casualties and greater risks to regional peace and security,” it said.

Ban condemned Hamas’ indiscriminate firing of rockets against Israeli civilian targets as “a violation of international law,” it said. He abhorred “the image of Israeli families hovering in shelters in fear of their children’s safety” and demanded “an immediate cessation of these indecent attacks.”

At the same time, the U.N. chief is “deeply worried about the impact on Palestinian families of Israeli military action. Too many Palestinian civilians have been killed, and any Israeli ground offensive will undoubtedly increase the death toll and exacerbate civilian suffering in the Gaza Strip,” it said.

Ban noted that despite the U.N. Security Council’s demand for a cease-fire, “the situation in and around the Gaza Strip appears to be worsening,” it said.

Amid the diplomacy, Israel said it was pushing forward with preparations for a possible ground invasion of Gaza. Thousands of troops have massed along the border in recent days.

“We don’t know when the operation will end,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday. “It might take a long time.” He said the military was prepared “for all possibilities.”

Israel launched the offensive last Tuesday in what it said was a response to heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. The military says it has launched more than 1,300 airstrikes, while Palestinian militants have launched more than 800 rockets at Israel. The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza says 166 people have been killed, including dozens of civilians. There have been no Israeli fatalities, though several people have been wounded, including a teenage boy who was seriously injured by rocket shrapnel Sunday.

Early Sunday, the Israeli air force dropped leaflets around the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia ordering people to evacuate their homes. Israel says much of the rocket fire has come from the area, and overnight Sunday, the military carried out a brief ground operation on what it said was a rocket-launching site that could not be struck from the air. Four Israeli soldiers

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