Rockets from Lebanon, Gaza strike Israel
US backs truce proposed by Egypt, France; Arms tunnels of Hamas hit
JERUSALEM - Israel's invasion of Gaza and battles with Hamas threatened to spread today after at least four rockets were fired into northern Israel from Lebanon, according to Israeli police and Lebanese security sources.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the rockets fell this morning around the town of Nahariya, five miles south of Lebanon. Rescue services said at least two people were slightly wounded.
Israeli defense officials said the military has been on alert for rocket attacks by Lebanon's Hezbollah militia since Israel intensified its offensive against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. The rockets were the first fired from Lebanon since a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas.
Shi'ite Hezbollah is not the only player in southern Lebanon. Rockets suspected to have been fired by small radical Palestinian groups or Sunni militants with links to Al Qaeda in the past have stoked border tensions.
Also this morning, a barrage of six rockets from Gaza hit towns in southern Israel.
The attacks followed intense bombing late yesterday by Israel, which resumed its Gaza offensive after a three-hour lull to allow in humanitarian aid. The attacks targeted tunnels used to smuggle in supplies and arms to Hamas.
Before the rocket strikes from Lebanon, strides had been made on the diplomatic front, with the US supporting a deal being brokered by France and Egypt.
While the Security Council failed to agree on a cease-fire resolution, Egypt's UN Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said representatives of Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to meet separately with Egyptian officials in Cairo today.
In yesterday's Israeli airstrikes, 29 Palestinians were killed. Israeli forces had dropped leaflets warning residents to leave the area "because Hamas uses your houses to hide and smuggle military weapons."
The casualties brought the total Palestinian death toll during Israel's 12-day assault to 688 and drove home the complexities of finding a diplomatic endgame for Israel's Gaza invasion. Ten Israelis have been killed, including three civilians, since the offensive began Dec. 27.
More than 5,000 people have fled the border area, seeking refuge at two UN schools turned into temporary shelters.
The fury of the renewed fighting made it appear each side was scrambling to get in as many hits as possible before a truce could materialize.
"I feel like the ground is shaking when we hear the shelling. People are terrified," said Fida Kishta, a resident of the Gaza-Egypt border area where Israeli planes destroyed 16 empty houses.
In Turkey, a Mideast diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly said that country would be asked to put together an international force that could help keep the peace. And diplomats in New York worked on a UN Security Council statement backing the cease-fire initiative but failed to reach agreement on action to end the violence.
"We are very much applauding the efforts of a number of states, particularly the effort that President (Hosni) Mubarak has undertaken on behalf of Egypt," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "We're supporting that initiative."
The army, which has refused to allow journalists into Gaza, permitted two TV teams to accompany soldiers on patrol for the first time. The footage showed soldiers walking through a deserted street in an unidentified location in Gaza.
The Israeli military correspondent who accompanied the soldiers said they were concerned about Hamas boobytraps. He said they were shooting through walls, throwing grenades around corners, going from house to house looking for Hamas gunmen and using bombsniffer dogs. Buildings showed bullet and shrapnel marks. "We used a lot of fire," said Lieutenant Colonel Ofer.
Despite the violence, a surprise announcement in Paris yesterday put a spotlight on diplomacy.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority had accepted the cease-fire deal, but he made no mention of Hamas, without whom no truce could work. The Palestinian Authority controls only the West Bank while Hamas rules Gaza - two territories on opposite sides of Israel that are supposed to make up a future Palestinian state.
Later, Israeli officials suggested Sarkozy's statement was not exactly accurate.
"Israel welcomes the initiative of the French president and the Egyptian president to bring about a sustainable quiet in the south," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. But for Israel to accept the proposal, he said, "there has to be a total and complete cessation of all hostile fire from Gaza into Israel, and . . . we have to see an arms embargo on Hamas that will receive international support."
For its part, Hamas said it would not accept a truce unless it ends the Israeli blockade of Gaza - something Israel says it is not willing to do.
"There must be guarantees to ensure Israel will not breach this package, including halting the aggression, lifting the blockade and opening the crossings," said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas adviser.
Growing global outrage over the human toll of Israel's offensive, which includes 3,000 Palestinians wounded - could work against continued fighting. So could President Bush's departure from office this month and a Feb. 10 election in Israel.
The Israeli Cabinet formally decided yesterday to push ahead with the offensive while at the same time pursuing the ceasefire option. The military has called up thousands of reserve troops that it could use to expand the Gaza offensive. Defense officials said the troops could be ready for action by tomorrow.
Still, Israel briefly suspended its offensive yesterday to allow humanitarian supplies to reach Gaza, and Israeli officials said such lulls would be declared on a regular basis.