GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Militants in Lebanon sent rockets crashing into northern Israel on Wednesday, while Israeli aircraft pounded a Gaza cemetery, Hamas weapons positions and tunnels used for smuggling, witnesses and the military said Wednesday.
The rockets, the second such attack from Lebanon in a week, landed in open areas near the town of Kiryat Shemona, causing no injuries or damage, Israeli police said. The rockets have fueled Israel's fears that militants in Lebanon could try to open a second front in solidarity with Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo Wednesday in diplomatic efforts to end the violence in Gaza, which began 19 days ago. The Israeli air and ground offensive against Hamas has killed more than 940 Palestinians, half of them civilians, according to Palestinian hospital officials.
Thirteen Israelis have also been killed, four of them by rocket fire from Gaza.
After meeting with Mubarak, Ban again called for an immediate halt to the fighting and said negotiations must be intensified to reach that end.
"It is intolerable that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict," he said.
Meanwhile, an audiotape purportedly of Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to launch a jihad, or holy war, to stop the Israeli offensive in Gaza. The al-Qaida chief also condemned Arab governments for preventing their people from acting to "liberate Palestine."
The tape was posted Wednesday on Islamic militant Web sites where al-Qaida usually issues its messages. The authenticity of the tape cannot be independently confirmed. But the voice resembles that of bin Laden in previous messages.
Eight years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns sparked the war, which began on Dec. 27 with a devastating air offensive, then expanded to include a ground campaign.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Wednesday's rocket attacks from Lebanon. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed guerrilla group that fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, denied involvement in a similar attack last week and speculation has focused on small Palestinian groups in Lebanon.
Lebanese security officials said the Israeli army fired shells on southern Lebanon in response. Israeli helicopter gunships flew reconnaissance missions along the heavily protected border as Lebanese troops and U.N. peacekeepers sent out patrols, the Lebanese officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press.
Residents in southern Lebanon took their children out of school in fear of an escalation. Israelis were instructed to head to bomb shelters.
The Israeli military confirmed that it returned fire, and said it regarded the Lebanese government and military as responsible for preventing attacks on Israel.
Three more Grad rockets that were set to be fired were discovered and dismantled by Lebanese troops several hours after the initial morning rocket firing, the officials said.
In Gaza, Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships pounded 60 targets overnight, including a police court in Gaza City, rocket-launching sites, weapons-production and storage facilities and about 35 weapons smuggling tunnels, the military said. Witnesses in southern Gaza reported an airstrike on the house of a rocket squad leader.
Aircraft also struck the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, destroying about 30 graves — some recently dug — and scattering body parts for yards, residents said. The military had no immediate comment, but rocket squads have used graveyards as launching pads in the past.
"There was flesh on the roofs, there was small bits of intestines. My neighbor found a hand of a woman who died a long time ago, we put it all into a plastic bag," said resident Ahmad Abu Jarbou.
Four Palestinians, including at least two militants, were killed and 32 people were wounded in overnight fighting, Gaza hospital officials said.
Early Wednesday, Israeli tanks fired shells at civilian areas, igniting small fires that dissolved into clouds of white smoke that hung above the city center, witnesses said. The Israeli military has not confirmed allegations that it has improperly used white phosphorous shells, saying only that it uses munitions is in accordance with international law.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has urged Israel to exercise "extreme caution" in using the incendiary agent, which is used to illuminate targets at night or create a smoke screen for day attacks, said Peter Herby, the head of the organization's mines-arms unit. The Red Cross said it had no evidence to suggest the incendiary agent was being used improperly or illegally.
Fireballs and smoke plumes from Israeli bombing have become a common sight in the territory of 1.4 million people, who are trapped because Israel and Egypt have blockaded border crossings ever since the Islamic militant Hamas group seized power in Gaza in June 2007.
Humanitarian concerns have increased amid the onslaught although some aid is getting through to Gaza during daily three-hour lulls Israel has allowed to let in supplies. A total of 111 truckloads of food and medical supplies were to pass Wednesday, the military said.
Palestinian rocket fire has dropped significantly since the offensive began. Twenty rockets and mortar shells were fired toward Israel on Tuesday, and there was no fire early Wednesday, the military said. In the early days of the offensive, militants fired as many as 80 a day.
Israel says it will push forward with the offensive until Hamas ends all rocket fire on southern Israel, and there are guarantees the militant group will stop smuggling weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border.
Hamas has said it will only observe a cease-fire if Israel withdraws from Gaza.
Israeli military officials have said the talks in Cairo will determine whether Israel moves closer to a truce with Hamas or widens its offensive to send thousands of reservists into crowded, urban areas where casualties on both sides would likely mount.
Iranian state television reported Wednesday that the Israeli navy intercepted an Iranian ship loaded with medicine, food and clothing destined for Gaza, forcing the vessel to head toward an Egyptian port.
Ahmad Navabi, head of the humanitarian aid group sponsoring the ship, said on state television that the Israel navy approached the cargo ship just 20 miles off the coast of Gaza, and ordered it to turn around.
Meanwhile, Iran's supreme political and religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious opinion, or fatwa, urging Muslims throughout the world to avoid the purchase of any products that would profit Israelis.