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Amid Gaza Offensive, Beirut Criticizes Israel Rocket Attack

Palestinian families leave the Gaza town of Rafah on January 8.
BEIRUT (Reuters) -- The Lebanese government has criticized a rocket attack from south Lebanon into Israel, saying it was a violation of a UN Security Council resolution that halted a 2006 war between Hizballah and the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora asked the Lebanese authorities to step up measures and their cooperation with UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon to "prevent a repeat of these acts," a statement issued from his office said.

Siniora's statement was issued after at least three rockets fired from Lebanon exploded in northern Israel, wounding two people, in an attack seen as linked to Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The commander of UN peacekeepers in Lebanon, Major General Claudio Graziano, called for "maximum restraint to avoid the escalation of the situation," according to a spokesman for the peacekeeping force, adding that there had been no claims of responsibility for the attack.

Israeli cabinet minister Rafi Eitan has blamed the rockets on Palestinians in Lebanon, not the Hizballah movement, in a television interview. "I think these are isolated incidents," Eitan told Israel's Channel 2. "We expected this."

Eitan said Israel believed Palestinians had fired the rockets, rather than the Lebanese Shi'ite Hizballah guerrillas with whom Israel fought a war in 2006. "The responsibility is entirely that of the Lebanese government," he added.

The statement by the Lebanese government said that "Prime Minister Siniora regards what happened in the south as a violation of the international resolution 1701 and something he does not accept and rejects" and said Siniora has called for an investigation into the incident. UN Security Council Resolution 1701 halted the 34-day war between the Lebanese guerrilla group Hizballah and Israel in 2006. Under the resolution, the Lebanese Army deployed in the south of the country together with thousands of additional UN peacekeepers.

Israel responded to the rocket fire with artillery fire into Lebanon. Siniora also condemned the Israeli retaliation.

The government underlined its commitment to the UN resolution, Siniora's statement said, adding whoever launched the rockets wanted to destabilize Lebanon.

Attacks Wounded Two

Several rockets fired from Lebanon struck northern Israel early on January 8, slightly wounding two people, police and medics said.

Israel hit back after a first salvo with artillery shells in what an Israeli army spokesman described as "a pinpoint response at the source of fire" -- a limited military reaction that appeared to signal a desire to avoid escalation.

Three hours later, Israeli emergency services said at least one more rocket had landed. There appeared to be no casualties.

There were no reports of casualties in Lebanon.

Lebanese security sources said they felt it was unlikely Hizballah fired the salvoes into Israel, which came from an area controlled by UN peacekeepers and the Lebanese Army, about 3 kilometers north of the border. Hamas sources in Lebanon denied involvement.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli aircraft bombed targets across the Hamas-ruled territory, killing three militants and a woman. A civilian was shot dead during an army raid in southern Gaza.

U.S. backing for a truce proposal raised expectations of an end to an onslaught that has killed more than 600 Palestinians.

Israeli forces have been on alert in the north, anticipating that Hizballah or Palestinian groups could fire rockets into northern Israel and lend support to Hamas and the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million inhabitants. Some 4,000 Hizballah rockets hit Israel in the 2006 conflict.

"We took into account there would be an attempt by Palestinian groups to express solidarity," Israeli cabinet minister Shalom Simchon said after the rocket attack.

Shi'ite Hizballah has not opened fire since Israel started bombarding the Gaza enclave on December 27 with the declared aim of halting Hamas rocket attacks.

Overnight Bombardment In Gaza

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian who tried to set fire to a gas station at a Jewish settlement, an Israeli rescue service said. Police confirmed the shooting but not the man's condition.

Residents in Gaza described an overnight bombardment to the east of the city as among the heaviest in the offensive. In the south of the territory tanks advanced closer to the town of Khan Younis, witnesses said.

Although Israel pressed on with the offensive, it said it accepted the "principles" of a European-Egyptian cease-fire proposal. The United States urged Israel to study the plan.

Israel's assault resumed after a brief pause on January 7 to help Gaza's inhabitants stock up on much-needed supplies.

Twenty Palestinians were killed on January 7, medics said, including three children in an air strike on a car. The total Palestinian death toll was at least 661, according to medical officials.

UN officials have said one-quarter of the Palestinian dead were civilians, while other accounts put that proportion higher.

Ten Israelis have died in the past 13 days, seven of them soldiers, including four killed by "friendly" fire.