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Rockets from Lebanon hit Israel amid Gaza offensive

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

Israel hit back after a first salvo with artillery shells in what an Israeli army spokesman described as "a pinpoint response at the source of fire" -- a limited military reaction that appeared to signal a desire to avoid escalation.

Three hours later, Israeli emergency services said at least one more rocket had landed. There appeared to be no casualties.

There were no reports of casualties in Lebanon.

It was not immediately clear whether Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas -- against whom Israel fought a 2006 war -- or Palestinians fired the rockets in a new challenge to the Jewish state on the 13th day of a Gaza campaign.

Lebanese security sources said they felt it was unlikely Hezbollah fired the salvoes, which came from an area controlled by U.N. peacekeepers and the Lebanese army, about 3 km (two miles) north of the border. Hamas sources in Lebanon denied involvement.

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.

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 into northern Israel and lend support to Hamas and the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million inhabitants. Some 4,000 Hezbollah rockets hit Israel in the 2006 conflict.

"We took into account there would be an attempt by Palestinian groups to express solidarity," Israeli cabinet minister Shalom Simchon said after the rocket attack.

Shi'ite Hezbollah has not opened fire since Israel started bombarding the Gaza enclave on Dec. 27 with the declared aim of halting Hamas rocket attacks.

Palestinian groups in Lebanon have also been known to fire rockets and Israeli military affairs commentators said it was more likely they were responsible for the rockets that hit the Israeli resort town of Nahariya and three other locations.

One rocket punched a hole in the roof of a home for the elderly in Nahariya. The Magen David Adom ambulance service said two people were slightly wounded and several were treated for shock after what police said were at least three rocket strikes.

HEAVY BOMBARDMENT

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian who tried to set fire to a gas station at a Jewish settlement, an Israeli rescue service said. Police confirmed the shooting but not the man's condition.

Residents in Gaza described an overnight bombardment to the east of the city as among the heaviest in the offensive. In the south of the territory tanks advanced closer to the town of Khan Younis, witnesses said.

Although Israel pressed on with the offensive, it said it accepted 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.

Twenty Palestinians were killed on Wednesday, medics said, including three children in an air strike on a car. The total Palestinian deathtoll was at least 661, according to medical officials.

U.N. officials have said a quarter of the Palestinian dead were civilians, while other accounts put that proportion higher.

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

With both George W. Bush's outgoing 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 may take several days. In the meantime, Israeli military commanders appear determined to keep up the pressure on the ground, even if a decision on whether to launch a new phase by targeting militants in Gaza's urban centres was put off.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed Israel's concerns that a deal must achieve its goal of stopping the Hamas Islamists who rule Gaza from hitting Israel with rockets.

"It has to be a ceasefire that will not allow a return to the status quo," she said.

Hamas said it was looking at the Egyptian plan, brokered by France, which addresses Israel's demand that the militant group be prevented from rearming through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. The proposal also addresses Hamas's call for an end to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Tuesday's killing by Israeli shells of 42 people, including women and children sheltering in a U.N.-run school in Jabalya refugee camp, intensified international pressure on Israel to call a halt. U.N. officials denied an Israeli army account that militants had been firing from the school.

Israel has said it will press on until Hamas can no longer hit its southern towns with rockets. Israeli leaders face a parliamentary election in a month and will want to show the public that they have met that objective.

However, U.S. involvement of the kind that helped end the Lebanon war and which was perceived as absent in the first week of the Gaza fighting may indicate that, whatever the state of combat on the ground, a ceasefire could be on the cards.

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 proposed backing the Egyptian ceasefire proposal with an EU force along the Gaza-Egypt border that would prevent Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, from rearming through its many tunnels.

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

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)

Source : http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2009/1/8/worldupdates/2009-01-08T143506Z_01_NOOTR_RTRMDNC_0_-373382-3&sec=Worldupdates

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