Thursday, January 08, 2009

Rockets from Lebanon hit Israel amid Gaza offensive

Rockets hit Israel from Lebanon

NAHARIYA, Israel (Reuters) – Several rockets fired from Lebanon struck northern Israel on Thursday, slightly wounding two people, police and medics said, in an attack seen as linked to Israel's war on Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip.

Initial fears that Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah guerrillas might have launched the attack dissipated after an Israeli cabinet minister pointed the finger at Palestinian groups.

Israel hit back with artillery shells in what an Israeli army spokesman called a "a pinpoint response." The limited reaction appeared to signal a desire to avoid escalation.

There were no reports of casualties in Lebanon.

Three hours later, Israeli emergency services reported another blast, but the military said this could have been a sonic boom from an Israeli plane, not a rocket impact.

An Israeli cabinet minister blamed Palestinians in Lebanon, not Shi'ite Hezbollah guerrillas -- with whom Israel fought a war in 2006 -- for firing the rockets.

"I think these are isolated incidents," Rafi Eitan, a senior minister in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, said on Israel's Channel 2. "We expected this."

A Lebanese minister also said he doubted Hezbollah had fired the rockets, which came from an area controlled by U.N. peacekeepers and the Lebanese army, 3 km (two miles) north of the border. Hamas sources in Lebanon denied involvement.

The commander of U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon called for "maximum restraint" after the border incident, and the Lebanese government criticised the perpetrators for violating the U.N. Security Council resolution that halted the 2006 war.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli aircraft bombed targets across the Hamas-ruled territory, killing three militants and a woman. A civilian was shot dead during an army raid in southern Gaza.

The International Committee of the Red Cross accused Israel of delaying ambulance access to a shelled area of Gaza City where it found four small children in a home with 12 dead bodies, including their mothers, on Wednesday.

In unusually strong terms, the neutral agency said it believed Israel had breached international humanitarian law in the incident and demanded it grant safe access for Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances to return to evacuate more wounded.

U.S. backing for a truce proposal raised expectations of an end to an onslaught that has killed more than 600 Palestinians.

Israeli forces have been on alert in the north, anticipating that Hezbollah or Palestinian groups could fire rockets across the border to show support for Hamas and 1.5 million Gazans. Some 4,000 Hezbollah rockets hit Israel in the 2006 conflict.

Hezbollah is not known to have opened fire since Israel began bombing Gaza on December 27 with the declared aim of halting Hamas rocket attacks. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has said his fighters are on alert for any Israeli attack.

In October, the Israeli army threatened "disproportionate" force against Lebanese villages if Hezbollah fired rockets.

One rocket punched a hole in the roof of a home for the elderly in the Israeli resort town of Nahariya, where medics said two people were slightly hurt and several suffered shock.


In the occupied West Bank, Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian who tried to set fire to a petrol station at a Jewish settlement, police said.

Gaza residents described an overnight bombardment east of the city as among the heaviest so far. In the south of the strip, tanks advanced toward Khan Younis town, witnesses said.

Palestinian medics said Israeli soldiers shot a truck driver dead and wounded another as they headed through the Gaza Strip to pick up U.N. supplies at the Erez crossing. There was no immediate U.N. comment. The Israeli army said it was checking.

Israel has accused Hamas of deliberately trying to disrupt aid as part of propaganda efforts, charges the movement denies.

An Israeli soldier was killed on Thursday, the army said.

Although Israel pressed on with the offensive, it has said it accepts the "principles" of a European-Egyptian ceasefire proposal. The United States urged Israel to study the plan.

Israel's assault resumed after a brief pause on Wednesday to help Gaza's inhabitants stock up on much-needed supplies. The army planned a similar three-hour lull on Thursday.

Twenty Palestinians were killed on Wednesday, medics said, including three children in an air strike on a car. The total Palestinian death toll has reached at least 666, according to medical officials. U.N. officials say many were civilians.

Eleven Israelis have died in the past 13 days, eight of them soldiers, including four killed by "friendly" fire.

With both George W. Bush's outgoing U.S. administration and President-elect Barack Obama speaking out on the need for peace, officials said Israel would send an envoy to Cairo to discuss how the Egyptian plan might be implemented.

That could take several days. For now, Israeli military commanders appear determined to keep up the pressure on the ground, even if the cabinet has put off a decision on a possible new phase to attack militants in Gaza's towns and cities.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed Israel's concerns that any deal must stop Hamas from hitting Israel with rockets from the Gaza Strip. "It has to be a ceasefire that will not allow a return to the status quo," she said.

Israeli leaders face a parliamentary election in a month and will want to show the public that they have met that objective.

Over a dozen rockets hit southern Israel on Thursday.

Hamas said it was considering the Egyptian plan, brokered by France, which addresses Israel's demand that the militant group be prevented from rearming, as well as Hamas's call for an end to Israel's economic blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Tuesday's killing by Israeli shells of 42 people, including women and children sheltering in a U.N. school in Jabalya refugee camp, increased world pressure on Israel to call a halt.

Some Israeli analysts say Israel faces a deadline to wrap up its campaign by the time Obama is sworn in, or risk a strain in ties with Washington at the outset of the new administration.

European governments have offered to back the Egyptian ceasefire proposal with an EU border force that would prevent Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, from rearming.

Hamas called off a six-month ceasefire late last month, accusing Israel of breaking an agreement to ease supplies.

(Reuters - Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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