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As Israel ceases fire in Gaza, militants fire rockets at southern Israel

ISRAEL declared a unilateral cease-fire in the Gaza Strip today meant to end three devastating weeks of war against militants who have tramautized southern Israel for years with rocket attacks. But hours after the truce took hold, militants fired a volley of rockets into Israel, threatening to reignite the violence.

No one was injured in the rocket assault. But shortly after, security sources in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun reported an airstrike that wounded a woman and her child. The Israeli military had no comment.

In another incident after the truce took hold, militants fired small arms at an infantry patrol, which directed artillery and aircraft to strike back, the military said.

"Israel will only act in response to attacks by Hamas, either rockets into Israel or firing upon our forces," government spokesman Mark Regev said. "If Hamas does deliberately torpedo this cease-fire, they are exposing themselves before the entire international community as a group of cynical extremists that have absolutely no interest in the well-being of the people of Gaza."

Regev would not say what level of violence would provoke Israel to call off the truce.

The cease-fire went into effect at 2am today local time (0000 GMT) after three weeks of fighting that killed some 1,200 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, according to Palestinian and UN officials. At least 13 Israelis also died.

Israel stopped its offensive before reaching a long-term solution to the problem of arms smuggling into Gaza, one of the war's declared aims. And Israel's insistence on keeping soldiers in Gaza raised the prospect of a stalemate with the territory's Hamas rulers, who have said they would not respect any truce until Israel pulls out.

The military warned in a statement early today that Israeli forces would retaliate for attacks against soldiers or civilians and that "any such attack will be met with a harsh response."

The cease-fire went into effect just days ahead of Barack Obama's inauguration as president of the United States on Tuesday. Outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration welcomed Israel's decision and a summit set for later today in Egypt is meant to give international backing to the truce.

Leaders of Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic -- which holds the rotating European Union presidency -- are expected to attend along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Ban welcomed the Israeli move and called on Hamas to stop its rocket fire. "Urgent humanitarian access for the people of Gaza is the immediate priority," he said, declaring that "the United Nations is ready to act."

It was not immediately clear whether Israel would send a representative to the meeting in Egypt, and Hamas, shunned widely as a terrorist organization, has not been invited.

Hamas, which rejects Israel's existence, violently seized control of Gaza in June 2007, provoking a harsh Israeli blockade that has deepened the destitution in the territory of 1.4 million Palestinians. The Israeli war did not loosen Hamas' grip on Gaza, and the group vowed that a unilateral cease-fire was not enough to end the Islamic movement's resistance.

"The occupier must halt his fire immediately and withdraw from our land and lift his blockade and open all crossings and we will not accept any one Zionist soldier on our land, regardless of the price that it costs," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

More moderate Palestinians also reacted with skepticism to Israel's two-phase truce and called on world leaders attending the Egypt summit to press Israel to pull out its troops immediately.

"We had hoped that the Israeli announcement would be matched by total cessation of hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza," said Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' bitter rival and the top leader in the West Bank, the larger of the two Palestinian territories. "I am afraid that the presence of the Israeli forces in Gaza means that the cease-fire will not stand."

As Israeli Cabinet ministers met yesterday to vote on the truce, fighter jets soared above the southern Gaza border town of Rafah, focusing their missiles on the no-man's land with Egypt where many smuggling tunnels lie.

Israel says that during its campaign, it destroyed roughly 60 percent of the hundreds of tunnels under the 15-kilometer border.

In other fighting yesterday, Israeli shells struck a UN school in northern Gaza where 1,600 people had sought shelter. One shell struck the top floor of the three-story building, killing two boys, UN officials said.

John Ging, the top UN official in Gaza, condemned the attack on Beit Lahiya that killed the two boys -- the latest in a series of Israeli shellings that have struck UN installations.

"Were they war crimes that resulted in the deaths of the innocents during this conflict? That question has to be answered," Ging said.

The Israeli army said it was launching a high-level investigation into the shelling, as well as four other attacks that hit civilian targets, including the UN headquarters in Gaza last week. The army investigation also includes the shelling of a hospital, a media center and the home of a well-known doctor.


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