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Israel reopens Gaza border for humanitarian aid ahead of expected incursion

Israel reopened its border with Gaza on Friday to allow deliveries of humanitarian aid, despite continued rocket and mortar fire from the coastal strip and growing expectations of a large-scale Israeli military campaign against Palestinian militants.

Israel reopened its border with Gaza on Friday to allow deliveries of humanitarian aid, despite continued rocket and mortar fire from the coastal strip and growing expectations of a large-scale Israeli military campaign against Palestinian militants.

The military said approximately 90 trucks would deliver medicine, fuel, cooking gas and other vital goods into Gaza. The shipment includes a large donation of goods from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's wife as well as more than 400,000 litres of fuel and 180 tonnes of natural gas, the military said.

The Defence Ministry said it agreed to open its cargo crossings into Gaza to avoid a humanitarian crisis. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the decision came after consultations with officials as well as calls from the international community. Israel controls Gaza's cargo crossings, which are used to deliver food, fuel and other goods into the territory.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, an Israeli cabinet minister, said the humanitarian shipment was meant to be a message to the people of Gaza that they were not Israel's enemy.

"We are sending them a message that the Hamas leadership has turned them into a punching bag for everyone," he told Israel radio. "It is a leadership that has turned schoolyards into rocket launching pads. This a leadership that does not care that the blood of its people will run in the streets."

The deliveries did not persuade Gaza militants to halt their rocket and mortar fire on Israeli border communities. The military said more than 10 rockets and mortars were fired toward Israel early Friday. One home was struck but no injuries were reported.

Israel had originally agreed to open the cargo crossings with Gaza on Wednesday, but shut the passages after militants began pounding southern Israel with dozens of rockets and mortars.

The attacks were the heaviest since an Egyptian-mediated truce between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers expired last week.

Truce unravels

The truce, which had taken effect in June, began unravelling in early November.

Pressure has been mounting in Israel for the military to strike forcefully against Gaza militants and Israeli leaders have been voicing strong threats in recent days.

But on Friday, military officials said the army was planning a routine rotation of its troops along the Gaza border in the coming week. That, coupled with current winter weather, made an imminent operation seem unlikely, they said.

Israel has maintained a strict blockade of Gaza since the June 19 ceasefire began unravelling six weeks ago, allowing in only small quantities of essential goods. Egypt has also sealed its border crossing with the territory, the main exit point for Gazans travelling abroad.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Cairo on Thursday for meetings with Mubarak, who urged Israel to exercise restraint in response to the rocket fire. Livni brushed aside the calls, however, and said Israel would defend itself.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also issued a direct, emotional plea to the people of Gaza to stop firing and turn against their Hamas leaders, whom he called "the main reason for your suffering for all of ours." He delivered the message in an interview with the Arabic-language Al-Arabiya TV channel.

Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation. Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, after routing security forces loyal to western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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