BEIRUT // A rocket and mortar exchange yesterday between unknown militants and Israeli forces raised concerns that Hizbollah might be joining Hamas in its rocket attacks on Israel as the conflict in Gaza continues. A Hizbollah minister in Lebanon's cabinet denied the group was involved in firing the rockets from south Lebanon into Israel yesterday morning and no group has claimed responsibility. At least three rockets were fired on northern Israel from remote, hilly land filled with olive trees. One person in Israel was injured when a rocket went through the roof of a nursing home in the northern town of Nahariya, about five kilometres from the border, and exploded in the kitchen while about 25 elderly residents were eating breakfast in the adjacent dining hall, the Associated Press reported. Israel responded with mortar fire, but no one was injured in Lebanon.
The Lebanese government condemned the firings, having previously declared that south Lebanon would not be used as a rocket launching pad, and said it was opening an investigation. Isaac Herzog, an Israeli cabinet minister, welcomed the Lebanese government's condemnation of the attack and said: "We look at it as a local event, something that was predictable", the AP reported. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, had previously said he did not want to be involved in another war with Israel. More than 1,000 people were killed in Lebanon and about 160 in Israel in the 2006 conflict.
"We do not want Lebanon to be dragged into the war in Gaza," Abbas Zaki, the PLO representative in Lebanon, said yesterday. "There must be a very thorough investigation to make sure that this incident does not cause a greater crisis." Timur Goksel, an analyst, said rocket fire emanating from Lebanon is probably being done more out of frustration than anything else. "I think that this is a local reaction from over 300,000 Palestinians armed to the teeth," he said. "An emotional outburst. A way of showing solidarity with the people of Gaza. What else can they do?"
Local residents offered a mixed reaction, blending anger over Israel's attacks on Gaza and support for Palestinians with concern that Lebanon does not become part of this war. "I hope that it is Hizbollah that launched the rockets," said Amine Mukhil, 19, a Lebanese University student. "It is so difficult to stand by and watch what is happening in Gaza. I sent e-mails of the slaughtered babies to all the people I know abroad because they only get one-sided news bulletins. They never show the horror of dead women and children."
Fadi Nour, 24, a fast-food deliveryman, said: "This shouldn't be permitted. It shouldn't happen. They should be severely punished. Everybody in the south is scared. They remember the 2006 war. I hear that people are leaving their homes already." Students were sent home from school, and Lebanese and UN troops added reinforcements yesterday to those already guarding the border area. The 13,000 strong UN peacekeeping contingent had previously increased patrols after eight rockets were found on Christmas Eve.
A Damascus-based militant Palestinian group with bases in Lebanon had recently warned "other military fronts will be opened" if Israel continued its Gaza assault. Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command refused to deny or confirm responsibility for yesterday's rockets, but its spokesman in Damascus, Anwar Raja, said the firing was a "natural outcome" of the Gaza onslaught, the AP reported.
* The National