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Gaza: Why Israel and Hamas are trading rocket fire

Both sides are maneuvering for another ceasefire, and Israeli troops are not likely to invade the Gaza strip, say analysts.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 2008

AIR ATTACKS: A Palestinian family flees after an Israeli missile hits.

Eyad Baba/AP

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Sderot, Israel

On the second day of intense Israeli airstrikes that set off street protests throughout the Middle East, Hamas responded Sunday by extending the range of its rocket attacks on southern Israeli cities.

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The ferocity and precision of the Israeli blitz sent the Palestinian death toll to nearly 300, surprising the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, and sowing panic. Egyptian border police fired on Palestinians fleeing across Gaza's western border Sunday. Meanwhile, Israeli troops and tanks massed on Gaza's eastern and northern borders.

But Israel is mindful of the lessons from its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago, say analysts, and isn't likely to send in ground troops to topple Hamas.

Rather than reoccupy Gaza, a politically unpopular move, Israel may want to simply redefine the terms of engagement along the southern frontier and reach a new cease- fire. "[Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert has been chastened by the Lebanon experience," says Michael Oren, a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem who authored a book on the 1967 war. "He talked about toppling Hezbollah and disarming Hezbollah. There are far more modest objectives for this operation – an improved status quo ante."

Israeli helicopters and combat jets struck the Hamas' main prison compound in Gaza city and, in a simultaneous strike, pounded about 40 supply tunnels leading under the Egyptian border on Sunday. Israel said the tunnels are the main artery of Hamas' improved arsenal of missiles. Palestinians say the tunnels are the only route for imported consumer goods after an Israeli blockade sealed commercial crossings.

In the first wave on Sunday, the Israeli air assault targeted training camps, police stations, and a Hamas intelligence headquarters. Despite the urging of colleagues and opposition politicians, Prime Minister Olmert is not talking about regime change in Gaza.

"The operation in the Gaza Strip is designed, first and foremost, to bring about an improvement in the security reality for the residents of the south of the country," said Olmert over the weekend.

On Sunday, Hamas rockets landed near Ashdod, the largest city in southern Israel. The city is 23 miles from Gaza. No serious injuries were reported, but the attack raises concerns that more Israeli cities may be within range of Hamas rockets.

With the conflict spilling over to neighboring countries, that goal may become more difficult. Arab satellite television news broadcast images of crowds of Gazans overrunning Egyptian security posts at the border with Gaza. Along the Lebanon border, the attacks have stirred concern about solidarity rocket strikes from Hezbollah.

Israeli jets flew low-level sorties over southern Lebanon Sunday morning, a muscle-flexing gesture. The militant Shiite Hezbollah has led calls of condemnation in Lebanon, declaring the attack on Gaza an "Israeli war crime and represents genocide."

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