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Page last updated at 22:24 GMT, Saturday, 27 December 2008

Israel's mixed motives for strikes

By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem

An Israeli missile is seen exploding inside the Gaza Strip from Israeli territory
Israel's attack was the heaviest on the Palestinian territories in 40 years

Gazans say Saturday's air strikes by Israel are the worst in living memory.

Israeli fighter jets fired at Gaza from morning to evening, spreading fear and chaos throughout the strip.

The target of the strikes was Hamas infrastructure - security compounds, government buildings and police stations.

Most of the dead were policemen, including the Hamas chief of police, but Gaza is one of the most overcrowded territories in the world.

Wherever Hamas operates, civilians live and work close by. The dead in Gaza include women and children. Medical sources suggested up to a third of the casualties could be civilian.

There were scenes of desperation in Gaza's hospitals.

As the mortuaries filled up, bodies piled up in corridors and outside on the street. Doctors warned that the seriously injured risked death too. They said they simply did not have enough operating tables.

Frightening prospect

On Saturday evening, when Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed Gazans directly in a speech, telling them that Israel did not want them to suffer, that Hamas, not ordinary Gazans, were Israel's enemy, his words were met with bitter scepticism.

Israel says it has been forced to act to stop the constant rocket and mortar shell from Gaza, aimed at Israeli towns just over the border.

Palestinians describe Israel's actions as disproportionate. One Israeli civilian was killed by rocket fire on Saturday while medical sources in Gaza say they expect the death toll there to reach 250.

Israel argues that, while most Gaza rockets are not deadly, they are designed to be.

The quarter of a million Israelis who live close to the Gaza border say they live in fear, never far from a bomb shelter.

Many are delighted their government is finally taking concerted action but they are scared, too, of Hamas reprisals.

Hamas's military wing has vowed to open the gates of hell. The movement's exiled political leader, Khaled Meshaal, has called for a third and violent Palestinian uprising.

Election looms

So why is Israel acting now and with such force?

Does it really believe it can stop the rocket fire from Gaza when previous Israeli governments have tried and failed, using every military means?

Israel's prime minister says that is his objective: to protect Israeli citizens living close to the Gaza border.

To achieve this, his defence minister, Ehud Barak, said Israel would continue, widen and intensify its Gaza operation.

But Israel's politicians are pursuing a parallel campaign, too - an electoral one.

Israel holds parliamentary elections in just over a month's time.

The Israeli public has a generally low opinion about how their government has handled what they call "Hamastan" - Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Until it started talking tough, the hawkish opposition leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, was leading in the polls. Now the gap has narrowed.

Undoubtedly, Israel's military has also been keen to destroy Hamas's weapons and the rocket launchers in Gaza.

There has been talk of a possible wide-scale, military invasion by Israel since Hamas took internal control of Gaza 18 months ago.

It is not clear that is where Israel is now heading.

There is little appetite in Israel's political circles for its soldiers to come home in body bags but military sources have suggested Israel may return to launching repeated, limited incursions in Gaza.

"We don't want Hamas to have a moment's peace," said one source.

Obama factor

It is also possible that Israel has decided to act against Hamas now, during the last days of a friendly Bush administration in the United States.

The United States is arguably the only outside power Israel deeply cares about. President-elect Barack Obama is seen in Israel as being more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Later on Saturday, there were vows of more violence from Israel and Hamas.

Yet, up until a week ago, there was a shaky truce in place between the two sides. It is possible that, as quickly as this situation has flared up, it could settle again, if the key players believe it to be in their interests.

For now, though, the streets on both sides of the Gaza border remain eerily quiet, with Israelis and Gazans there at home with their families, fearful of what tomorrow might bring.

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