JERUSALEM: Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza threatened to broaden on Thursday as at least three rockets were fired into the north of Israel from Lebanon.
The rockets, presumably launched in support of Hamas, could presage the opening of a second front. The Israeli Army, in a brief statement, said it “responded with fire against the source of the rockets,” which landed near the town of Nahariya. Two Israelis were slightly wounded, the police said.
So far there has been no claim of responsibility. A spokeswoman for the militant group Hezbollah, which triggered a war with Israel in 2006 by firing rockets into northern Israel from Lebanon, said an investigation was underway. “We are still looking for information about it,” she said.
Prime Minister Fuad Siniora immediately condemned the attack.
In 2006, after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier just outside Gaza, a large Israeli operation there was overshadowed by Israeli’s massive response to an attack in the north by Hezbollah, which turned into what is known as the Second Lebanon War.
On Wednesday, Israel had said that it would send senior officials to talk with Egypt about halting the conflict in Gaza, but there were no immediate signs of a diplomatic breakthrough, and fighting between Israel and Hamas militants continued after a three-hour lull for humanitarian aid to be distributed.
International pressure for a negotiated cease-fire intensified after Israeli shells killed some 40 people at a United Nations school in Gaza on Tuesday. Israel said Hamas militants had fired mortar shells from the school compound prior to Israel’s shelling.
Israel suspended its military operations in Gaza for three hours on Wednesday to allow humanitarian aid and fuel for power generation to reach Gazans, who used the afternoon break to shop.
But fighting resumed soon afterward and continued into a 13th day on Thursday. For the second successive day, Israel said Thursday it would pause its offensive for three hours to permit Gaza’s population to seek medical and food supplies, The Associated Press reported.
On Wednesday evening, the Israeli Army dropped leaflets warning the citizens of Rafah, next to the border with Egypt, to leave their homes. Israel has been bombing the tunnel networks through which arms and consumer goods are smuggled from Egypt into Gaza.
The rockets from Lebanon fell in residential areas. Shimon Koren, head of the northern district police, instructed residents of Nahariya and Kabri to enter bomb shelters and he instructed residents in nearby localities to open their shelters. School was cancelled in Nahariya and nearby Shlomi. The Israeli government said it welcomed the efforts of France and Egypt to work out a durable cease-fire. It said it would end its assault if Hamas stopped firing rockets into Israel and ended the smuggling of weapons from Egypt. It said that if a durable cease-fire took hold, it would reopen border crossings into Gaza for goods and people. But Israeli and Hamas officials both denied an assertion by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, that a cease-fire had been agreed upon.
“There is an agreement on general principles, that Hamas should stop rocket fire and mustn’t rearm,” a senior Israeli official said Wednesday evening. “But that’s like agreeing that motherhood is a good thing. We have to transform those agreed principles into working procedures on the ground, and that’s barely begun.”
The government spokesman, Mark Regev, said that “the challenge now is to get the details to match the principles.”
There were early signs that a formal diplomatic negotiation could begin after days of fighting. Egypt’s chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, is expected to serve as a go-between for Israel and Hamas. Two Israeli officials a senior aide to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Shalom Turgeman, and a senior defense official, Amos Gilad are expected to go to Egypt on Thursday to begin discussions, Israeli officials said.
The United States has been involved behind the scenes, senior Israeli and French officials said, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “constantly on the phone” with Olmert, according to one Israeli official.
In Washington, the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said of talks about a cease-fire: “As I understand, the Israelis are open to the concept, but they want to learn more about the details; so do we.”
At the United Nations, several Arab delegates said Wednesday night that they thought they now had enough votes to approve a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire. That would likely put the United States and other Western powers, which oppose a binding resolution, in the awkward position of having to veto a cease-fire.
A senior French official in Paris said that Sarkozy’s earlier comment about an agreement on a cease-fire was misunderstood: “The plan is not a cease-fire; the plan is a road map toward a cease-fire.” One crucial aspect of any deal is how to prevent new smuggling tunnels from being built under Egypt’s border with Gaza.
The senior Israeli official raised the possibility of reaching “tacit agreements” with Hamas to end rocket fire, while also persuading Egypt to allow American and perhaps European army engineers to help seal its border with Gaza above and below ground.
Hamas is insisting that any new arrangement include the reopening of border crossings for trade with Israel and the reopening of the Rafah crossing into Egypt for people.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has said that a 2005 agreement on the Rafah crossing, reached with Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, must be respected. That agreement called for a Palestinian Authority presence at the crossing, supervision by European Union monitors and Israeli video surveillance of who entered and left.
Hamas wants to control the crossing itself and is not eager to cooperate with Fatah, its -rival.
In Washington, President-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that upon taking office he would “engage immediately” in the Middle East crisis and that he was “deeply concerned” about the loss of life on both sides.
“I am doing everything that we have to do to make sure that the day I take office we are prepared to engage immediately in trying to deal with the situation there,” he said at a news conference. “Not only the short-term situation but building a process whereby we can achieve a more lasting peace in the region.”
In Gaza, John Ging, the director of Gazan operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, visited the school in the Jabaliya refugee camp where Israeli shells fell Tuesday. He denied that Hamas militants had fired mortar shells from within the school compound and called for an international investigation into the attack, which he said had killed 40 people.
Israeli officials said they were continuing to investigate, but reiterated that Hamas had been using the school as a base. Gilad, the defense official, told Israeli Army radio: “This school served as a base for Hamas men whose identity we know. They fired from inside the school compound, and the army fired back at the source. The time was after school hours, and this school is an example of the cynical and cruel use Hamas does with civilian facilities.”
Casualty figures are hard to verify, but officials at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and the Gazan Ministry of Health said 683 Palestinians had died since the conflict began Dec. 27, including 218 children and 90 women. They said 3,085 had been wounded. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza said 130 children age 16 or under had died. The United Nations estimated a few days ago that a quarter of the dead were civilians.
But Palestinian residents and Israeli officials say that Hamas is tending its own wounded in separate medical centers, not in public hospitals, and that it is difficult to know the number of dead Hamas fighters, many of whom were not wearing uniforms.
Israel says it has killed at least 130 Hamas fighters. Ten Israelis have been killed during the offensive, including three civilians. Most of the seven dead Israeli soldiers were killed in so-called friendly fire