Q&A: The Gaza Conflict

Israel and the Palestinians have been shooting at each other in and around the Gaza Strip almost daily for more than eight years. It is the main battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on Dec. 27, Israel launched its largest — and deadliest — offensive in all those years of fighting.

Here are some of the issues surrounding the current battle:

Why has Israel undertaken such a major offensive now?

In the last half of 2008, a six-month truce kept the shooting to its lowest level in years, although both sides violated it. When the truce ended Dec. 19, Hamas stepped up its rocket fire. Israel then unleashed a major air campaign directed at Hamas targets, followed by the ground incursion on Jan. 3. Political factors also appeared to play a role in the timing of the Israeli campaign. President Bush's administration has been strongly supportive of Israel and has generally backed the latest Israeli action. The incoming Obama administration has refrained from taking any clear position before assuming office on Jan. 20. Also, Israel has elections planned for Feb. 10. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is stepping down, but his Kadima party and its coalition partners want to show they are taking strong action against security threats to Israel.

Israel has carried out repeated military operations in Gaza since 2000 and has never been able to stop the Palestinian rocket fire. Is this time likely to be different?

The scope of the Israeli operation is much larger than any previous military action. In the past, Israel often relied on helicopters and unmanned drones to fire relatively small missiles. This time, Israel has called in F-16 fighter planes that have dropped large bombs, flattening government buildings. Previously, Israel feared heavy casualties if it sent ground forces into the congested cities and towns of Gaza. This time, Israel has poured thousands of troops into the coastal territory. While Israel has already dealt Hamas a heavy blow, it is not yet clear how Israel would prevent Palestinian militants from rebuilding their rocket arsenals once the Israeli troops are gone.

What is the focus of the Israeli ground campaign?

The Israeli troops have taken up positions in the farming fields in the northern and the eastern fringes of Gaza, where the Palestinians fire rockets. The rocket fire has been reduced, but it has not stopped. The troops have also advanced to the edges of Gaza City, taking up positions atop high-rise buildings. Gaza City, with a population of roughly half a million, is the largest Palestinian city and the home of many Hamas leaders and supporters. The Israelis are expected to maintain their focus on northern Gaza, but they also want to shut down the smuggling tunnels that run beneath Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

What are conditions like for Palestinians in Gaza?

In Gaza City, many Palestinians say they have rarely left their homes since the Israeli offensive began. Electricity and water are not available in many areas, and food is getting harder to come by. Gaza is extremely poor, and families are large. It's not uncommon for an extended family of 10 or more to share a small apartment. Hospitals have been overwhelmed by the casualties, with civilians accounting for about a quarter of the Palestinian dead. The Israeli military has called Palestinian homes and dropped leaflets urging families to leave areas that are likely to become battlegrounds. However, many Palestinians say they have no place to go, and taking to the streets at a time when they are controlled by Israeli troops is also considered extremely risky. Israel has allowed some humanitarian supplies into the area, but many Gazans complain that food, medicine and other essentials are difficult if not impossible to get for those in the battle zone.

How does Hamas get its rockets?

Hamas has fired thousands of rockets into southern Israel in recent years. Most were made in small metal workshops and garages that repair cars. The rockets are inaccurate, but they sow panic in southern Israel. More recently, Hamas has obtained longer-range rockets that were brought in from abroad through smuggling tunnels on the Egyptian border. Most Palestinian-made rockets travel only a few miles, and most are directed at the town of Sderot, just a couple of miles beyond Gaza's perimeter fence. But the imported rockets have struck as far away as Beersheba, a town 25 miles beyond Gaza's borders.

Is Hamas likely to remain in control of Gaza when the fighting ends?

Israeli officials say toppling Hamas is not an explicit aim. However, Israel has been squeezing Hamas ever since the radical Islamist group won the Palestinian elections three years ago, and Israel has made clear it would welcome the demise of Hamas in Gaza. However, the rival Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank, is weak and disorganized in Gaza and does not appear well-positioned to take over.

Israel fell far short of its goals when it waged a similar military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. Is the current Gaza operation analogous?

There are similarities. Israel is once again seeking to suppress rocket fire coming from a radical Islamist group based on its border. However, Hezbollah in Lebanon is much stronger than Hamas in Gaza. Southern Lebanon is rugged, hilly territory, where Hezbollah fighters could fire rockets and disappear. The group had a huge stockpile of weaponry supplied by Iran. The Israelis faced intense rocket fire most everywhere they went in southern Lebanon. In contrast, Gaza is a small, flat territory where Israeli troops were present for nearly four decades. Palestinian militants have many automatic rifles and other small arms, but they lack the heavier weapons needed to take on Israel's tanks and other armored vehicles. Israel will be able to move around Gaza at will but can expect to face great difficulty in rooting out individual militants and Hamas leaders.

What are Israel and Hamas demanding in order to end the current round of fighting?

Israel says it wants three things: to eliminate Hamas' ability to fire rockets; a clear understanding that firing rockets in the future will lead to severe reprisals; and security arrangements that keep Hamas from rearming. Like Israel, Hamas has shown little interest in a cease-fire at this point. The group says it wants an end to the economic embargo that Israel has placed on Gaza, and an opening of commercial traffic between Gaza and Egypt.

How long is Israel likely to stay in Gaza?

Israel pulled all its troops out of Gaza in 2005 and says it has no plans to keep troops there indefinitely. However, Israel has set no limitations. Israel is likely to reassess its actions when the Obama administration takes office on Jan. 20. The approach of Israel's election next month also is likely to put pressure on the military to wrap up the operation.

Greg Myre is a senior editor at Morning Edition. He reported from the Middle East for more than a decade.

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