Three Soldiers Killed in Gaza Fighting

Three Israeli soldiers were killed in the Gaza Strip yesterday as rockets continued to fall on Israel, and for the first time since the fighting began 13 days ago also fell in northern Israel.

Meanwhile, as fighting raged in the south, Israeli, Egyptian and other foreign diplomats sought to negotiate a formula for bringing the fighting to an end.

Also yesterday, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss a draft cease-fire resolution.

An Israel Defense Forces soldier was killed yesterday in a clash with Hamas gunmen in Gaza, the third IDF soldier to die in one day.

Capt. Omer Rabinovitch of the Golani infantry brigade was killed in the northern Gaza Strip. Another soldier was lightly wounded in the incident.

Earlier yesterday, Sgt. Amit Robinson, 20, from Kibbutz Magal, was killed by Palestinian sniper fire in the Strip. Robinson was killed while participating in a joint operation involving infantry troops, combat engineers and armored corps soldiers. Another soldier was lightly wounded in the incident.

News of Robinson's death was released after that of Maj. Roey Rosner, 27, who was also killed early yesterday. Rosner, an officer in the Kfir infantry brigade, was fatally wounded when his unit was hit by an anti-tank missile while on patrol in the former settlement of Netzarim. Another soldier was lightly wounded in the incident.

The incident in which Rosner died was the first time Hamas militants used such weapons since Israel began its offensive in the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah fighters made extensive use of anti-tank missiles against IDF troops during the Second Lebanon War.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip fired at least 25 rockets and mortar shells at the western Negev on Thursday afternoon, injuring four people.

At least five rockets fired by militants from Gaza struck southern Israel overnight. Two of the rockets exploded in open fields near Be'er Sheva, another two hit near Ashkelon and a fifth struck the Eshkol region.

The IDF ceased offensive fire again yesterday afternoon, enabling humanitarian aid to be brought into the Strip. Hamas did not stop firing during the three-hour hiatus in Israeli attacks.

Yesterday the IDF also allowed 300 holders of dual citizenship in the Strip to cross to Jordan through the Allenby Bridge.

Meanwhile the talks in Egypt held by Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's political-security bureau, did not reach a breakthrough on a cease-fire, according to Israeli sources. At this time Israel is debating two possibilities: a unilateral cease-fire or a decision to deepen the ground offensive.

A cabinet meeting is expected this morning to decide on the matter.

The Egyptians informed Gilad that at this time Hamas is opposed to their initiative for a cease-fire.

Signaling Hamas' unwillingness to compromise at this time, a senior Hamas official in Syria, Mohammed Nazzal, told Syrian TV yesterday that the group would never surrender and vowed to fight house-to-house against Israeli troops in Gaza.

There was also no progress on the issue of arms smuggling, other than an expression of good will by Egypt to hold talks on the matter. "The talks on the tunnels issue needs more time before there will be results," a defense related source said yesterday.

Also yesterday, Arab states decided to put aside their proposed U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, and to negotiate a different draft put forward by Britain and backed by the United States and France.

Arab nations had been pressing for a council vote Thursday on their newly-revised resolution, which would demand an end to all military activity in Gaza and call for an international force to prevent arms smuggling. But the changes in the Arab text did not meet all the demands of the United States and its key Western allies, Britain and France, all veto-wielding members of the council.

Details of the British-drafted text were not released.

However a disagreement emerged with Arab diplomats insisting on a legally binding resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli troops, while the U.S., Britain and France wanted a weaker statement emphasizing that a "durable cease-fire" requires guarantees on reopening border crossings and preventing arms smuggling by Hamas.

Arab ministers discussed that text, then rejoined their Western counterparts for further talks. A diplomat at the meeting said the Arabs agreed to negotiate on the British text and proposed a number of amendments. Leaving the meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "We're still working very hard. We're making some progress."

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution stating an "unwavering commitment" to Israel and its right to defend itself, while also calling for "a viable and independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside a secure state of Israel." The House was expected to pass a similar measure Friday.

The United Nations suspended missions in the Gaza Strip yesterday after two Palestinians in a truck flying the U.N. flag were killed by Israeli fire, depriving hundreds of thousands of increasingly desperate residents of a main source of food and humanitarian aid. "The U.N. is suspending its aid operations in Gaza until we can get safety and security guarantees for our staff," said Chris Gunness of the U.N Relief and Works Agency, which has been helping Gaza refugees since 1949.

"We've been coordinating with them [Israeli forces] and yet our staff continue to be hit and killed," he added.

Militants in Lebanon fired several Katyusha rockets into northern Israel yesterday, including one that tore through the roof of a nursing home and injured two people, raising Israeli concerns it may have to fight a two-front conflict. Israel swiftly retaliated with artillery fire at the suspected source of the rockets, and the border region settled into a tense calm.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora condemned the attack, which he said appeared aimed to draw his country into an unwanted confrontation with Israel just as it was recovering from the previous one.