JERUSALEM: Insurgents in Lebanon fired at least three rockets into northern Israel on Thursday, ripping through a crowded nursing home and threatening to open a new front for the Jewish state as it pushed forward with a bloody offensive in the Gaza Strip that has killed over 700 people.
Lebanon’s government, wary of conflict, quickly condemned the rocket fire and said it was trying to determine who was behind the attack. Israel fired mortar shells into southern Lebanon in response.
According to a BBC report, analysts concluded Hezbollah were unlikely culprits, despite recent fiery rhetoric from the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah about the possibility of renewed conflict with Israel.
Reports from Beirut said Hezbollah had made it known to the Lebanese government that it was not involved.
And the group has a reputation, even among Israelis, for being a credible conveyor of information about its activities.
The scale of the attack, much smaller in the first instance than the July 2006 ambushes, argued against Hezbollah involvement.
The group would be capable of a much heavier blow if it had wanted a confrontation with the Israelis, the report said.
The rockets seem to have been short-range, and were fired from south of the Litani river, which is controlled by the Unifil peacekeeping force and the Lebanese regular army.
In new Gaza violence, Israel killed at least 11 people, including three who were fleeing their homes, raising the death toll from its 13-day offensive to 699 people, according to Palestinian medical officials.
Also, UN spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said Israeli forces fired on a truck on a UN aid mission and killed the Palestinian driver. He said the UN coordinated the delivery with Israel, and the attacked vehicle was marked with a UN flag and insignia.
Earlier this week, an Israeli attack near a UN school killed up to 40 people. At the time, Israel said it opened fire after insurgents hiding in the crowd fired mortar shells at Israeli troops.
Israel’s offensive is meant to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. With roughly half the dead believed to be civilians, international efforts to broker a cease-fire have been gaining steam.
For a second straight day, Israel suspended the operation for three hours to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza.
One rocket from Lebanon went through the roof of a nursing home in the northern town of Nahariya, about 8 km from the border, and exploded in the kitchen as about 25 elderly residents were eating breakfast in the adjacent dining hall. One resident suffered a broken leg, another bruises, apparently from slipping on the floor after emergency sprinklers came on.
“The rocket entered through the roof, hurling the water heaters into the air. It went through bedrooms upstairs and then into the kitchen. There was a serious blast, said Henry Carmelli, the home’s manager.
About three hours later, air-raid sirens went off again. But authorities said it was a false alarm.
Israel has repeatedly said it was prepared for a possible attack on the north since it launched its bruising campaign against Hamas insurgents in Gaza on Dec. 27. Israel has mobilized thousands of reserve troops for such a scenario, and leaders have warned Hezbollah of dire consequences if it enters the fighting.
“We are following what is happening in the north. We are prepared and will respond as necessary, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Hezbollah, which did not comment, has said it does not want to draw Lebanon into a new war. Small Palestinian groups have rocketed Israel twice since the 2006 war.
Israeli officials suggested radical splinter groups in Lebanon, not Hezbollah, were responsible and said Israel has no interest in escalating the conflict.
Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog welcomed the Lebanese government’s condemnation of the attack.
“We look at it as a local event, something that was predictable, he said.
Herzog said Israel welcomes the Egyptian-French diplomatic activity, but said the government was prepared to “deepen its offensive if the peace efforts fail.
In Beirut, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora condemned the rocket fire, and Israel’s response. The government stressed it was committed to peace.
Shortly after the first rockets fell around Nahariya, Lebanese TV stations reported Israeli mortar fire on open areas in southern Lebanon. The Israeli military confirmed it carried out “pinpoint fire in response.
Israeli defense commentators said they expected the incident to be a one-time show of solidarity with the Palestinians. Still, police said public bomb shelters throughout the north were opened.
Palestinians reported some two dozen airstrikes in Gaza on Thursday. One insurgent was killed and 10 wounded in Gaza City, while an air strike in northern Gaza killed three members of a rocket-launching cell. The attack took place about 150 meters from a hospital and wounded 12 bystanders. The Israeli army has repeatedly said insurgents use civilian areas for cover.
Seven other Palestinians were killed in separate incidents, including three civilians – en elderly man and two women – who were fleeing their homes, officials said.
In Geneva, the international Red Cross said it found four small children alive next to their mothers’ bodies in the rubble of a Gaza home hit by Israeli shelling.
A Red Cross spokesman said rescuers had been refused permission by Israeli forces to reach the site for four days.
The Israeli offensive has reduced Palestinian rocket fire, but not stopped it altogether.
Several barrages were reported on Thursday, including a strike that damaged a school and sports center in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon and another attack that wounded four soldiers near the Gaza border, police said.
For a second day, Israel quieted its guns to allow in desperately needed food, medicine and fuel into Gaza. Defense Ministry spokesman Peter Lerner also said some 300 Palestinian holders of foreign passports would be allowed to leave.
UN spokesman Chris Gunness said three hours was “wholly inadequate and would not be enough to relieve widespread food and water shortages.
After Wednesday’s lull, Israel bombed suspected smuggling tunnels near the border with Egypt. The tunnels are Hamas’ lifeline, used to bring in arms, money and basic goods. Israel says local homes are used to conceal the tunnels.
The latest casualties brought the total Palestinian death toll during Israel’s 13-day assault to 699, according to Palestinian health officials, and drove home the complexities of finding a diplomatic solution for Israel’s Gaza invasion.
Some 350 civilians, including about 130 children, are among the dead, according to Palestinian medical officials. Since the offensive began, 11 Israelis have been killed, including three civilians and an infantry officer killed Thursday by an anti-tank missile.
Growing international outrage over the toll of Israel’s offensive, which includes 3,000 Palestinians wounded, could work against continued fighting. So could President George W. Bush’s departure from office this month and a Feb. 10 election in Israel.
But Israel has a big interest in inflicting as much damage as possible on Hamas, both to stop rocket fire on southern Israeli towns and to diminish the group’s ability to play a spoiler role in peace talks with Palestinian moderates.
New strides were being made on the diplomatic front with the US throwing its weight behind a deal being brokered by France and Egypt.
While the UN Security Council failed to reach agreement on a cease-fire resolution, Egypt’s UN Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said representatives of Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority agreed to meet separately with Egyptian officials in Cairo.
Israeli envoys arrived in Egypt on Thursday.
In Turkey, a Mideast diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly said Wednesday that his 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.
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 which 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. Hamas took control of Gaza from forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007.
Later, Israeli officials made it clear Sarkozy’s statement was not exactly accurate.
For Israel to accept the proposal, “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, said government spokesman Mark Regev.
Hamas said it would not accept a truce deal unless it includes an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza – something Israel says it is not willing to do. Israel and Egypt have maintained a stiff economic embargo on Gaza since the Hamas takeover.
The Israeli Cabinet decided on Wednesday to push ahead with the offensive while at the same time pursuing the cease-fire. -Agencies