JERUSALEM (AP) — Gaza rocket fire struck a gas station and set it ablaze Friday in southern Israel, seriously wounding one person as rocket fire also came from Lebanon for the first time in the four-day offensive.
The attack on the gas station in Ashdod looked to be the most serious attack in Israel in the four days of fighting that has seen Israel deliver a heavy blow to Gaza’s Hamas leaders. Its military has carried out more than 1,000 strikes against Gaza targets that have killed at least 98 people, including dozens of civilians.
The explosion in Ashdod sent plumes of smoke high into the air, leaving a trail of charred vehicles in its wake. Israeli health officials said the blast wounded three people, including one in serious condition. Rocket fire continued in earnest from Gaza toward various locations in southern and central Israel, including toward Israel’s international airport.
In northern Israel, rocket fire struck near the Lebanese border and the military responded with artillery fire toward the source in southern Lebanon, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.
The Lebanese military said three rockets were fired toward Israel around 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) and the Israelis retaliated by firing about 25 artillery shells on the area.
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said that one of those suspected of firing the rockets was wounded and rushed to a hospital. The Lebanese military said troops found two rocket launchers and dismantled them.
Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has battled Israel numerous times. However, recent fire from Lebanon has been blamed on radical Palestinian factions in the area and Hezbollah has not been involved in the ongoing offensive.
A Lebanon-based al-Qaida-linked group, the Battalions of Ziad Jarrah, claimed responsibility in the past for similar rocket attacks on Israel.
Gaza militants already have fired more than 550 rockets against Israel in the four-day offensive. Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system has intercepted most of those aimed at major cities but some have slipped through.
Frequent air raid sirens sounded across Israel on Friday, including for the first time in the northern city of Haifa. The commercial center of Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion airport also heard warning sirens but these rockets were intercepted and there was no disturbance to Israel’s air traffic. Israel has shot down at least 110 incoming rockets thus far.
Israel launched the Gaza offensive to stop incessant rocket fire that erupted after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank and a Palestinian teenager was abducted and burned to death in an apparent reprisal attack.
The military says it has hit more than 1,100 targets already, mostly what it identified as rocket-launching sites, bombarding the territory on average every five minutes.
In Gaza, an Israeli airstrike Friday hit the home of a well-known Islamic Jihad leader. Gaza health officials said strikes overnight killed a total of eight people, raising the death toll to at least 98. The strikes have wounded some 670, the officials said.
Lerner said the military was doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties, calling inhabitants ahead of time to warn of imminent attacks. He said Israeli forces also fire “non-explosive munitions” at roofs as a warning and looks for people to leave before destroying a structure.
Lerner blamed Hamas for the death of innocent bystanders by firing from heavily populated areas.
Israel’s military “uses its weapons to defend its civilians. Hamas uses its civilians to defend its weapons,” he said.
Israeli leaders are mulling whether to launch a ground assault in Gaza to target Hamas. Such a move, though, would likely involve a rise in Palestinian civilian casualties and put Israeli troops at risk as well. Israel has mobilized more than 30,000 reservists to supplement the potential ground operation.
During a ground incursion in early 2009, hundreds of civilians were killed and both sides drew war crimes accusations in a United Nations report.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair said efforts were being made to try and reach a truce.
“We are in a critical point,” he said. “I think we have got to do everything we can to … create a situation in which the people in Gaza and the West Bank and in Israel feel that this is not then going to recur and there is some genuine plan in place.”
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Najib Jobain in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.