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Following a massive air assault against Hamas in Gaza that began Dec. 27, Israel on Jan. 3 launched a ground invasion of the small strip of land inhabited by 1.5 million Palestinians. Casualties are sure to rise as the fighting moves into densely populated areas. Gaza medics have reported that some 660 Palestinians have been killed, nearly 200 of them children, and more than 2,950 wounded. Another report states that about 45 percent of the wounded are civilians. At least eight Israeli soldiers have been killed, three by “friendly fire,” and rockets launched by Hamas have killed three Israeli civilians.

This time around, Hamas provoked Israel by deciding not to renew its six-month ceasefire with Israel, which ended Dec. 19, and stepping up its rocket attacks against Israel. It also reportedly used the ceasefire as an opportunity to double the range of its rockets to 40 kilometers. Whatever its political calculations, Hamas sowed the seeds for the current conflict.

Israel shares responsibility for the significant casualty rate among Gaza’s ordinary citizens. Hamas militants also shoulder some blame because they deliberately operate from areas populated by civilians. One factor behind Israel’s excessive retaliation could be the parliamentary elections Feb. 10. To win the elections, the government wants to show that it is doing its best to secure the safety of Israeli citizens. It reportedly prepared for the offensive for more than six months.

Israel says its military action is a limited incursion to eradicate terrorism. Hamas, meanwhile, has vowed to fight “until the last breath.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to bring about a quick ceasefire did not materialize since Israel wants a provision to prevent Hamas from rearming.

As long as Hamas does not remove its rockets and accept the Jewish state’s right to exist, it will be difficult for Israel to reach a ceasefire agreement. But an extended Israeli offensive would increase casualties and boost Palestinian support for Hamas. The international community should strive to bring about an immediate ceasefire to end the sufferings of Gazan residents, but how this can be accomplished remains unclear.

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