Gaza fighting sidelines Israeli-Palestinian peace bid
President Abbas halted negotiations Sunday. Secretary of State Rice arrives this week.
With violence surging and diplomacy retreating, the Israelis and Palestinians were lurching dangerously close Sunday to returning to an active state of war.Skip to next paragraph
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The weekend's rising toll of deaths and injuries comes on the eve of a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to arrive here Tuesday as part of the Bush administration's efforts to push into fast forward a peace process that has been moving, at best, in slow motion.
The escalation is coming from both sides in the conflict, though each blames the other for ratcheting up the violence. Israel says that Hamas has gone too far by shooting longer-range Katyusha missiles at the coastal city of Ashkelon and peppering other southern towns with Qassam rockets. Hamas, meanwhile, says that its launches come in response to Israel's targeted assassinations.
In some of the worst violence in the Gaza Strip in years, Israel launched an intensive air and ground military operation there on Saturday, killing 63 Palestinians. Israel says most of them were Hamas militants, while Hamas says most of them were civilians. During the operation, Palestinian gunmen killed two Israeli soldiers.
Israel views the attacks on those cities as a move by Hamas to widen the conflict. But Palestinians say Israel is using the attacks as a pretext to launch a larger offensive that it has been planning for months.
Defense analysts in Israel, however, say that the escalation of the past few days, however intense, is not the full-scale offensive on Gaza the Israeli military and political establishment has been discussing, because Israel still hasn't come to a decision about how to deal with the situation.
A poll last week indicated that the majority of Israelis would support seeing their government enter into talks with Hamas in order to reach a cease-fire. But the possibility of doing so seemed to be slipping further away as the death toll rises and missile attacks are reaching farther than before.
"It's clear that there is a limit to Israel's ability to absorb the situation," says Jonathan Spyer, an expert on Middle East Affairs at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya. "The launching of Grad [Katyusha] missiles on Ashkelon is an unacceptable escalation. But what are the options for a longer-term solution? One is an attempt to reach a cease-fire, and the other is an extended Israeli military invasion in Gaza."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be under pressure not to accept a cease-fire with Hamas, he adds, because of the expectation that Hamas has a "poor track record" and will break it when it chooses. Israel has also at times broken cease-fires when it sees a chance to target a wanted militant.
Moreover, a cease-fire with Hamas, Dr. Spyer points out, probably won't mean that other groups actively involved in launching rockets, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, will abide by it. This, Spyer says, is part of the complication Israel faces in dealing with Hamas: While Hamas controls Gaza, it won't force other groups to comply with its decisions.