Israel Pounds Gaza City, Shells Lebanon After Rocket Attack

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip  — Guerrillas in Lebanon rocketed northern Israel on Wednesday for the second time in a week, drawing Israeli artillery fire and threatening to drag the Jewish state into a second front as diplomatic efforts to broker a truce in Gaza intensified.

In Egypt, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon issued a new call to immediately end the fighting: "It is intolerable that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict," he said.

Egypt's foreign minister, whose nation has been instrumental in cease-fire talks, said he had received Hamas' latest proposal and would convey it to the Israelis. Without revealing details, he indicated an agreement was near and a Hamas spokesman said the militant group had "no other choice."

Israel showed little sign of slowing its bruising 19-day-old offensive against Hamas, striking some 60 targets in the strip bordering southern Israel. One airstrike hit an overcrowded cemetery, spreading body parts and rotting flesh over a wide area. The army said the airstrike targeted a weapons cache hidden nearby.

Israel launched the onslaught in Gaza on Dec. 27, seeking to punish the ruling Hamas militant group for years of rocket attacks on southern Israel. The offensive has killed 1,000 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, including 300 children, Gaza health ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said. The toll included 11 Palestinians killed Wednesday, medical officials said.

Thirteen Israelis have also been killed since the offensive began, four by rocket fire from Gaza.

The rocket fire from Lebanon caused no injuries, but sent residents scurrying to shelter. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. 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.

Lebanese security officials said the Israeli army fired at least eight artillery shells on south Lebanon in response. There were no reports of Lebanese injuries from the retaliatory fire.

The Israeli military said it targeted the source of the rockets, and that it regarded the Lebanese government and military responsible for preventing attacks on Israel. The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora condemned the attack.

Israel repeatedly has said it does not seek renewed fighting with Lebanon, but is prepared for hostilities along the northern border. The Muslim world has expressed outrage over Israel's Gaza offensive, and in a new condemnation Wednesday, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to launch a holy war against Israel.

Ban, the U.N. chief, called for intensified negotiations "to provide arrangements and guarantees in order to sustain an endurable cease-fire and calm." Ban is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Thursday.

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, said he believed there was room for compromise.

"I am optimistic now because I think there is no other choice for us," he told the British Broadcasting Corp., suggesting there could be reconciliation down the road with the rival Palestinian administration run by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

One of the main issues has been the Rafah crossings from Egypt into Gaza, which Israel says are a main transit point for weapons and ammunition into Gaza.

"We want to reach a compromise which can allow the Rafah crossings to work as well and to allow for export and import and for the traveling of people," said Hamad.

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

Israel again postponed plans to send its lead negotiator, Amos Gilad, to Cairo on Thursday, defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the date of his departure has not been set.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Hamas had offered its own proposal to end the fighting.

"We will keep it under a lid of secrecy until we reach a cease-fire agreement that is followed by several interrelated steps to reach a cease-fire, ensure withdrawal (of the Israelis) open the crossing and secure the return of the monitors."

Israel is trying to keep up the pressure on Hamas to accept Israel's truce terms: A complete cessation of violence from Gaza and international guarantees of a halt in the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border.

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.

Palestinian rocket fire has dropped off dramatically since the offensive began. Twelve rockets were fired at Israel on Wednesday, down from as many as 80 a day early in the operation.

Overnight, Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships pounded a police court in Gaza City, rocket-launching sites, gunmen, weapons-production and storage facilities and about 35 weapons smuggling tunnels, the military said. Later in the day, witnesses in southern Gaza reported air strikes on the house of a rocket squad leader and a militant's car.

Aircraft also struck the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, destroying about 30 graves — some just recently dug — and scattering bits of flesh and body parts for yards (meters), residents said. The stench of scorched and rotting flesh hung over the area.

"There was flesh on the roofs, there was small bits of intestines. My neighbor found a hand of a woman who died a long time ago, we put it all into a plastic bag," said resident Ahmad Abu Jarbou. "One man who buried his cousin yesterday couldn't find the body at all."

Maj. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman, said the army targeted a weapons cache next to the cemetery and a nearby rocket-launching site. She said the heavy damage was the result of secondary explosions.

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using mosques, schools and other civilian areas to stage attacks or store weapons.

In other fighting, artillery units fired shells that spread white smoke above the city center, witnesses said. Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using phosphorous shells — a weapon that can burn anything it touches. The Israeli military has denied reports that it has improperly used white phosphorous shells, saying only that it uses munitions is in accordance with international law.

The International Committee of the Red Cross 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 white phosphorous 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 Hamas overran 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. A total of 111 truckloads of food and medical supplies were to pass through on Wednesday, the military said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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