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8 Jan, 2009 09:14

Middle East on the brink

The conflict in the Middle East looks set to escalate with Lebanon in danger of being dragged into the hostilities. This follows an exchange of missile fire between militants based in southern Lebanon and Israeli forces.

Israel returned fire on border areas in Lebanon after missiles fired from there hit the town of Nahariya in northern Israel.

At least three Katyusha rockets fell around the northern Israeli border on Thursday morning, wounding two persons, Israeli police said. The Israeli army fired back with at least six artillery shells. So far, no casualties have been reported as resulting from the latter attack.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for launching the rockets from Lebanon. It’s the first such attack since Israel launched a major ground offensive in the Gaza Strip on December 27 aimed at stopping the frequent rocket attacks on Israeli territory by Palestinian militants.

The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, has denied responsibility for the attack from Lebanon.

The brief cross-border fire exchange may draw Israel into conflict with another radical Islamist group, Hezbollah – a close ally of Hamas.

A violent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 killed over 1,000 Lebanese and about 160 Israelis. The border area in southern Lebanon is now controlled by Lebanese troops and UN peacekeepers.

Meanwhile, Israel has launched more than 20 pre-dawn air strikes on Gaza, followed by soldiers entering the territory and taking on Hamas militants in face-to-face clashes with. This follows a relatively quiet night for the people of Gaza.

The Israeli army says it's captured more than 100 suspected militants and has found explosives and smuggling tunnels. A mosque has been destroyed in Gaza City, and ground clashes are being reported in the south.

The second planned pause in Israel's assault is due to begin on Thursday afternoon to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians.

Journalists are not being allowed into Gaza, but RT's sister Arabic news channel Russiya Al Yaum is there.

According to their report, four people died when Beit-Lahia, a town north of Gaza City, was shelled recently. During a short period of calm which lasted for three hours, numerous casualties were found. Rescuers took them to the northern part of Gaza. Bodies were also found in the eastern part of Gaza. Entire families were found dead under the ruins of houses. Kassam and Grad rockets were fired at Israeli territory in response, according to Russiya Al Yaum.

Meanwhile, Palestinian citizens at the border with Egypt are in a deadlock, the report says:

“They have nowhere to go after receiving letters urging them to leave this territory and warning of upcoming shelling. More than 15% of Rafah City has been razed to the ground. There isn’t a single house left near the border. We know that more than 1,700 houses have been destroyed there as a result of this intifada. The question is what happens to those who live in the centre of Rafah City and where they will go when their houses are destroyed”.

People are trying to escape the shelling to save their lives. “But we also met people who’d prefer to die under the ruins of their own homes,” RT’s sister channel correspondent Saed Suerki said. “We talked to the elderly, children and women. They all said if death is even happening in schools and mosques, then where is there to find rescue? They’d prefer to die in their homes. They said it would be more honourable for them.”