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Fighting between Israel and Hamas pauses in Gaza

At least three rockets fired from Lebanon exploded in northern Israel today in the first such attack since Israel launched an assault in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip nearly two weeks ago.

Israel fired artillery shells into Lebanon to retaliate for the rockets, which landed after daybreak around the town of Nahariya. Israeli medical workers said one of the rockets from Lebanon caused light shrapnel wounds to two women in a home for the elderly.

The Israeli military had been on alert for rocket attacks by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, a Hamas ally, since starting the Gaza offensive Dec. 27. Police said the rockets were Katyushas, the kind Hezbollah used during its 34-day war with Israel in mid-2006.

No group claimed responsibility for today’s rocket attacks. Small Palestinian groups unaffiliated with Hezbollah also possess Katyushas.

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In Gaza, Israel and Hamas scaled back their fighting Wednesday and weighed a cease-fire proposal from Egypt and France, even as Israeli leaders considered a deeper assault into the Palestinian group’s urban strongholds.

Fighting on Wednesday in the air, land and sea offensive all but stopped for three hours during a unilateral Israeli pause. Israeli officials said they wanted to give diplomacy a chance, indicating that a decision either to end or intensify the operation, aimed at halting rocket fire into Israel, could come by week’s end.

“From Israel’s perspective, there’s no contradiction between pursuing the military targets in Gaza and working in parallel on the diplomatic track,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. He added that “a weaker Hamas is a Hamas that’s easier to contain” under any negotiated cease-fire.

Tens of thousands of beleaguered Palestinians ventured into Gaza’s streets Wednesday afternoon to stock up on food and fuel, flee to safer quarters, or simply unwind. Fighting bracketed the lull, but the Palestinian death toll, 22, was the lowest of any day since Israel launched its offensive.

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Israel, responding to a worldwide outcry over the punishing toll on Gaza’s 1.5 million people, suspended its offensive to allow humanitarian agencies to distribute relief supplies. Israeli officials said such brief lulls would be declared daily.

Hamas largely respected the 1-to-4 p.m. pause, which brought calm except for a few reported attacks by each side.

It was the first letup in an Israeli assault that has killed about 700 Palestinians, of whom the United Nations says more than 400 are civilians. Ten Israelis have been killed since the fighting began, three of them civilians struck by continuing Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel.

Like Israel, Hamas said it was studying the cease-fire proposal, which is being fleshed out in talks among the United States, Israel, European nations, Egypt and other Arab states. Egypt said it planned to hold separate talks with Israeli and Hamas representatives in Cairo starting today. “Given the diplomatic efforts, I am confident that we can agree within 48 hours on a formula both sides can accept,” Ahmed Yusuf, a senior advisor to the Hamas government in Gaza, told Israel’s Ynet news.

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French officials said they had received a commitment from Syrian leader Bashar Assad to urge Hamas to accept a truce. Syria is a patron of the Islamist group.

Israeli leaders appeared to be seeking a way out of the bloodiest conflict in Gaza since Israel occupied the seaside enclave in 1967.

Discussion on how to end the operation gained momentum after two events Tuesday: the cease-fire proposal offered by France and Egypt; and the Israeli shelling of a United Nations-run school in Gaza that killed 43 civilians, raising international pressure on Israel to withdraw.

“Israel has reached an undesirable point,” Giora Eiland, a retired brigadier general who once led Israel’s National Security Council, told Israel Radio. “We have become the isolated party.”

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Israeli analysts said the military believed its ground sweep had been well executed but had elicited far less resistance than expected from Hamas in open areas outside the cities, apparently leaving much of the group’s 15,000-man paramilitary force intact.

Although the goal of crippling Hamas’ ability to fire rockets had not yet been achieved, the analysts said, the Israeli military is not eager to take its offensive inside Gaza’s cities, where Hamas militants are believed to be waiting in a warren of booby-trapped hide-outs and tunnels.

“That would seem to indicate that the current level of military engagement may continue for another day or two, but then a choice will have to be made between a rapid diplomatic resolution or an escalated military offensive,” David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, wrote Wednesday.

Israel indicated, however, that it would strike harder near the Egyptian border in southern Gaza, which has so far experienced less ground fighting than in the north.

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Israel said it carried out 40 airstrikes in Gaza on Wednesday, hitting Hamas rocket-launching sites, bunkers and tunnels. Militants fired 14 rockets into Israel, a far lower number than on previous days. No serious injuries were reported.

Palestinian medical officials said three sisters from the Abed Rabbu family -- Suad, 6; Amal, 4; and Samar, 2 -- were killed by an Israeli tank shell in Jabaliya. Fifteen other civilians were among Wednesday’s dead, the officials said.

For most Palestinians, the day brought a brief respite.

“Thank God for this little bit of calm,” said schoolteacher Yassir Faloje as he watched his five young children play in Gaza City’s Barcelona Park. “My kids have been imprisoned at home for 12 days. We live near a Hamas security compound and hear the bombing every day and night.”

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Israel allowed in 79 truckloads of relief supplies from international donors and industrial fuel for Gaza’s power plant. Palestinian medics sought to retrieve bodies from areas that had previously been too dangerous to approach.

International relief agencies said the lull was too short to even begin relieving Gaza’s shortages of fuel, electricity, water, food and medicine.

The fuel-starved power plant remained closed, leaving more than a million Gazans without electricity.

Egypt and France called Tuesday for an immediate temporary truce to let in more assistance and give mediators time to arrange a durable cease-fire.

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Hamas spokesmen have said they want Israel to withdraw its troops from Gaza and open Gaza’s borders before they agree to stop shooting. Israeli officials have said they won’t agree to a truce before Egypt, with international assistance, can devise a plan to prevent weapons from flowing through tunnels from Egypt.

The U.N. Security Council met Wednesday but adjourned without taking action.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Geraldine Baum at the United Nations and special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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