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Gaza Rockets Hit Israel Despite Ceasefire

Column of Israeli tanks near the Gaza border
GAZA (Reuters) -- Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip launched rockets into southern Israel on January 18 in defiance of the unilateral ceasefire that Israel declared hours earlier and which Hamas pledged to ignore.

After 22 days of fierce assaults in the Gaza Strip, Israel appeared to be back at the starting point -- threatening strong military action unless cross-border rocket salvoes stopped.

Palestinians rushed to remove bodies from rubble and survey damage to homes damaged or destroyed in Israel's most powerful offensive in the Gaza Strip in decades.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak invited European leaders to a hastily called a summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to try to bolster the unilateral truce although Israel had sidestepped his efforts to achieve a negotiated end to the hostilities with Hamas.

Israel's unilateral ceasefire went into effect at 2 a.m. local time. Within hours, five rockets were fired at the Israeli town of Sderot, causing no casualties, an Israeli military spokesman said.

No Surprise

The attacks came as no surprise; Hamas said it would not accept the presence of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip and would "continue to resist them". Israel has said full withdrawal was contingent on the Islamist group ceasing fire.

In what appeared to be a limited military response, Israeli aircraft struck the site where the rockets were launched. Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for the salvoes.

Several hours later, another rocket slammed into Israel, the military spokesman said, an attack claimed by Hamas's armed wing.

No casualties were reported in the rocket attacks or the air strike.

But in the first reported fatality since the ceasefire began, a Palestinian was killed by Israeli forces near the town of Khan Younis after mortar bombs were fired from the area, medical workers said, identifying him as a civilian.

In an address late on January 17, Olmert said the Israeli operation, launched on December 27 with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks that had killed 18 people in Israel over the previous eight years, had achieved all its objectives.

The deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians and mounting destruction and hardship in the Gaza Strip brought strong international pressure on Israel to stop the offensive.

Olmert cited internationally backed understandings with Egypt, Gaza's southern neighbor, on preventing Hamas from rearming through smuggling tunnels as a reason behind Israel's decision to call off its attacks.

Left unsettled was an issue at the heart of the conflict -- Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip -- and Islamist Hamas, though hit hard by the air and ground campaign, remained the de facto force within the coastal enclave.

"The enemy has failed to end the rocket attacks and they are still reaching deep into the Zionist entity," Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said.

Residents Return

Israeli attacks killed more than 1,200 Palestinians -- including some 700 civilians -- during the offensive, Gaza medical officials said. Israel said hundreds of gunmen were among the dead. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by rockets were killed.

Hours after the ceasefire began, Israeli soldiers moved out of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, an area militants have used as a launching ground for cross-border rocket strikes.

Ambulances picked up more than 55 bodies, most of them gunmen, that had yet to be recovered from the rubble of buildings and open areas in and around Beit Lahiya, Hamas police and health officials said.

Residents who had left during the fighting returned to survey what remained of their homes. Children picked through the debris to uncover school bags and torn books.

"Thank God, you are alive," one man told a neighbor. "The house can be rebuilt, God willing."

A column of Israeli tanks and soldiers, some holding Israeli flags, withdrew from the Gaza Strip for what the army called "rest and relaxation".

But several of the tanks established a position 100 meters on the Gaza side of the border while others remained deployed on the eastern edge of the city of Gaza.

Tanks were also seen in the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim, continuing to split the Gaza Strip in two.

In a message blared from a loudspeaker in a Gaza mosque, Hamas said it "congratulates our people at this victory achieved by our people and their resistance, foremost the Qassam Brigades which forced the occupation forces to withdraw".

Without an accord with Hamas, diplomats said they feared Israel would let only a trickle of goods into Gaza, hampering reconstruction and creating more hardship for its people.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed the ceasefire but also urged Israel to pull out its forces from Gaza rapidly.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had spoken up for what Israel saw as its right to self-defence despite the civilian casualties, said she hoped for a durable ceasefire and a long-term settlement for the problems of Gaza.

Rice and President George W. Bush are stepping down and many analysts believe Israel, eager for smooth relations from the outset with the new president, has been keen to end the fighting before Barack Obama takes over the White House on January 20.