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Israel hits Gaza as rockets strike from Lebanon

Israeli aircraft pounded the Gaza Strip, witnesses and the military said Wednesday, while militants in Lebanon raised the specter of a new front by sending three rockets crashing into northern Israel.
Image: Israeli soldiers hold up national flag
Israeli soldiers display a national flag after crossing into Israel at the border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday.Amir Cohen / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israeli aircraft pounded a cemetery, rocket-launching pads, weapons arsenals and dozens of arms smuggling tunnels in the Gaza Strip, witnesses and the military said Wednesday, while militants in Lebanon raised the specter of a new front by sending three rockets crashing into northern Israel.

Israeli police said the rockets from Lebanon landed in open areas near the town of Kiryat Shemona, causing no injuries or damage. Residents of northern Israel were instructed to head to bomb shelters following the second attack from Lebanon in less than a week.

Lebanese officials said the Israeli army fired shells on south Lebanon after the rockets were fired on Israel.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed guerrilla group that fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, denied involvement in last week's attack and speculation focused on small Palestinian groups in Lebanon.

The rockets flying across its northern border have fueled Israel's fears that militants in Lebanon could try to open a second front in solidarity with Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers.

Israel launched an air and ground onslaught against Hamas 19 days ago.

U.N. chief heads to region
On Wednesday, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to lend his heft to diplomatic efforts to wrest an end to the violence, which has killed more than 940 Palestinians, half of them civilians, according to Palestinian hospital officials.

Thirteen Israelis have also been killed, four of them by rocket fire from Gaza.

Eight years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns sparked the war, which began with a devastating air offensive, then expanded to include a ground campaign.

Ban's first stop on his weeklong tour was to be Egypt, which is playing a crucial role in cease-fire efforts.

Israeli military officials have said the talks in Cairo, which they term "decisive," will determine whether Israel moves closer to a truce or widens its offensive to send thousands of reservists into crowded, urban areas where casualties on both sides would likely mount.

Israel had planned to send its lead negotiator, Amos Gilad, to Cairo on Wednesday, but his trip was put off because conditions weren't ripe, defense officials said. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the date of his departure has not been set.

Ban is to meet Wednesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who launched an initiative with France a week ago aimed at achieving a temporary halt to the fighting to be followed by a permanent cease-fire and arrangements on border security. He will head from there to Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait. His itinerary does not include a stop in Gaza, whose Islamic militant Hamas rulers are shunned by many world powers as a terrorist organization.

Ahead of the U.N. chief's arrival Wednesday, Israel's U.N. ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, wrote him a letter charging that Hamas is "deliberately endangering civilians" in Gaza. She claimed that Hamas operates a command center under Shifa Hospital, Gaza's largest, and militants "routinely fire from inside the houses of civilians who are held as hostages, prevented by Hamas from leaving."

Offensive presses ahead
Israel pressed ahead with its military offensive overnight even as diplomatic efforts advanced. Warplanes and helicopter gunships pounded 60 targets overnight, including a police court in Gaza City, rocket-launching sites, gunmen, weapons-production and storage facilities and about 35 weapons smuggling tunnels, the military said. Witnesses also reported an air strike on the house of a militant rocket squad leader.

Palestinians said aircraft also struck the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, destroying tombs and unearthing dozens of bodies. Gaza City residents, too terrified to venture out to the only graveyard in the area with space to dig new graves, have reopened the Sheikh Radwan burial ground to bury their dead. The military had no immediate comment.

Early Wednesday, Israeli tanks resumed fire at civilian areas, using shells that ignited small fires before dissolving into clouds of white smoke that hung above the city center, witnesses said. The Israeli military has not confirmed reports that it has improperly used white phosphorous shells, saying only that it uses munitions is in accordance with international law.

Four Palestinians, including at least two militants, were killed and 32 people were wounded in overnight fighting, Gaza, hospital officials said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has urged Israel to exercise "extreme caution" in using the incendiary agent, which is used to illuminate targets at night or create a smoke screen for day attacks, said Peter Herby, the head of the organization's mines-arms unit. The ICRC said it had no evidence to suggest the incendiary agent was being used improperly or illegally.

Fireballs and smoke plumes from Israeli bombing have become a common sight in the territory of 1.4 million people, who are trapped because Israel and Egypt have blockaded border crossings ever since the Islamic militant Hamas group seized power in Gaza in June 2007.

Humanitarian concerns have increased amid the onslaught although some aid is getting through to Gaza during daily three-hour lulls Israel has allowed to let in supplies.

Palestinian rocket fire has dropped significantly since the offensive began. Twenty rockets and mortar shells were fired toward Israel on Tuesday, and there was no fire early Wednesday, the military said. In the early days of the offensive, militants fired as many as 80 a day.

Hamas fighting for political capital
Hamas, which is backed by Iran, cannot hope to score a battlefield victory over the powerful Israeli military, but mere survival could earn it political capital in the Arab world as a symbol of resistance to the Jewish state. Lebanon's Hezbollah, another Iran-backed group, largely achieved that goal in its 2006 war with Israel.

Israel says it will push forward with the offensive until Hamas ends all rocket fire on southern Israel, and there are guarantees the militant group will stop smuggling weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border.

Hamas has said it will only observe a cease-fire if Israel withdraws from Gaza.

Egypt is critical to both sides in any deal because much of the ongoing diplomacy focuses on an area of southern Gaza just across the Egyptian border that serves as a weapons smuggling route.

Israel wants smuggling tunnels along the border sealed and monitored as part of any deal, and has bombed suspected tunnel sites throughout its campaign.