US President Barack Obama has used his first formal TV interview since taking office to reach out to the Muslim world - saying Americans are not its enemy.

Speaking to the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network, Mr Obama reiterated that the US would extend the hand of friendship to Iran if it "unclenched its fist".

It comes as his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, travels to the region, heralding a new burst of diplomacy.

He will meet Egypt's leader to discuss the Gaza ceasefire and peace efforts.

Egypt has been mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah.

Mr Obama told Al-Arabiya that the US sometimes made mistakes and stressed that his administration would adopt a more open diplomatic approach.

"As I said in my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," he said.

"It is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of US power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran."

On Middle East peace, Mr Obama reiterated his administration's support for Israel and its security but also suggested Israelis would have to make some tough choices.

"Ultimately we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what is best for them. They are going to have to make some decisions," he said.

"But I do believe the moment is ripe for both sides to realise that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it's time to return to the negotiating table."

Asked about verbal attacks made on him in recent videos released by al-Qaeda, Mr Obama responded: "What that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt."

The BBC's Justin Webb in Washington says that for most of the interview, Mr Obama appeared determined to be emollient and - as he put it repeatedly - respectful, stressing that the US would begin by listening rather than dictating.

sorce : BBC NEWS

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U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon led international protests Thursday describing the Palestinian death toll as "unbearable" as Israeli air strikes hit a hospital, media building and UN compound.

He also said the death toll from the war, now nearing 1,100, has become "unbearable."

"I have conveyed my strong protest and outrage and demanded a full explanation from the defense minister and foreign minister," Ban told reporters in Tel Aviv after the strike on a UN compound in Gaza.

The U.N. suspended its operations in Gaza after Israeli shells smashed into the compound, setting fire to warehouses holding badly-needed aid.

A building housing the offices of several media organizations, a hospital wing and the United Nations headquarters in Gaza City were struck by Israeli forces Thursday, Al Arabiya TV and witnesses reported, prompting the U.N. to suspend operations.

Three Israeli tank shells smashed into UNRWA, the U.N.'s main relief agency in Gaza, wounding three workers, the pan-Arab news station reported, in an attack condemned by the U.N. chief.

The Israeli airstrike on the al-Shorouk media building killed two Abu Dhabi TV journalists and wounded several others, Al Arabiya TV reported.

A wing of a-Quds Hospital in Gaza City caught fire after another Israeli strike, witnesses said, though it was not immediately clear whether there were injuries.

Al Arabiya TV reported that the Israeli tanks encircled the house of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahaar in Gaza City. Palestinian fighters said a number of Israeli soldiers were injured in a military unit in west Gaza, Al Arabiya said.

UNWRA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna told AFP it was suspending all operations because of the shelling.

One of the buildings, containing "hundreds of tons" of humanitarian aid, was on fire, while other parts of the compound sustained shrapnel damage, another UNRWA official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Earlier, the compound was damaged when another Israeli shell landed next to the building, which is near the Islamic University in the centre of Gaza City,

Chris Gunness, a Jerusalem-based spokesman for the agency, said hundreds people were taking refuge inside the compound when it was hit.

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Israel killed one of Hamas's top leaders in Gaza, interior minister Said Siam, the most senior leader to have been killed in the 20-day-old war in the enclave, as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon led international protests describing the Palestinian death toll as "unbearable".

"Leader Said Siam, his son and his brother fell as martyrs in Gaza," reported Al-Quds television, based in Beirut.

The three died in an Israeli air strike on the house of Siam's brother north of Gaza City.

Siam was in charge of 13,000 police and security men, many of whom are actively involved in fighting Israel. He founded the Executive Force, a Hamas security branch originally set up to rival Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's presidential guard.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ozone06.04.04 Ozone is a big buzz word these days. We mostly hear about the ozone layer, and the importance of protecting it. But if you want to understand what ozone's all about, you need to understand that it can be good, and it can be bad.

+ The good kind of ozone

The stratosphere is the layer of the atmosphere from 10 to 30 miles above sea level. When there's ozone in this layer, it protects us from solar radiation. How? Simple chemistry.

Regular oxygen molecules, known to science-types as O2, are made up of two oxygen atoms stuck together. Solar energy shoots in from space and splits that molecule into two atoms. When one of those stray atoms attaches to a full-fledged O2 molecule, you've got, well, O3, otherwise known as ozone. All that action blocks solar radiation, and keeps it from reaching us.

Image above: The second largest ozone hole ever observed is seen above Antarctica in this image from September 2003. Credit: NASA

How can solar radiation be harmful to life on Earth? Part of that radiation is ultra-violet, or UV radiation. It's an intense energy from the Sun that can cause a whole lot of damage. Skin cancer is the most dramatic result of a too much UV radiation, but there's a lot more too. Photosynthesis in plants is also affected, and that causes problems for the whole food chain. See where this is headed? We need to protect our ozone shield, and we can do so by decreasing the pollution that our industrial society puts out in large amounts every day.

+ The bad kind of ozone

Let's come down a little closer to Earth. The troposphere is everything below the stratosphere, from sea level to about 10 miles above. It's where everything lives. Things that happen to the troposphere happen to us; there's nothing indirect about it.

Put a little ozone in the troposphere and you've got some big problems. Remember those dramatic chemical reactions that happened up in the stratosphere? Living things are made of atoms and molecules too, so when we expose them to ozone, we've got some serious chemical reactions on our hands.

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As the summer fire season heats up, NASA aircraft are set to follow the trail of smoke plumes from some of Earth's northernmost forest fires, examining their contribution to arctic pollution and implications for climate change.

Starting June 29, NASA's DC-8 and P-3B aircraft, based at a Canadian military base in Cold Lake, Alberta, will begin their final three-week deployment of the Arctic Research of the Composition of the Troposphere from Aircraft and Satellites, or ARCTAS, mission. A third NASA aircraft, the B-200 King Air, will fly from Yellowknife, Canada. The mission is the most extensive field campaign ever to study the chemistry of the Arctic's lower atmosphere. The three airborne laboratories are equipped to fly through the smoke plumes of northern-latitude forest fires. The resulting data, when combined with simultaneous satellite measurements, could reveal the impact of forest fires on the arctic atmosphere.

"The summer campaign will focus on boreal forest fire emissions," said Jim Crawford, manager of the Tropospheric Chemistry Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Coupled with the observations of arctic haze during the spring deployment based in Alaska, these data will improve our understanding of the relative importance of these two influences on arctic atmospheric composition and climate."

Boreal forests, which span Earth's northern latitudes, have seen a rise in natural forest fires during the last decade. Researchers have debated the degree to which these fires contribute to the Arctic's atmosphere compared to other sources, such as human-caused emissions from lower latitudes. The ARCTAS flights through smoke plumes, over and downwind from their source, will reveal their composition and transport path.

Researchers also will use the data to examine how the chemistry of smoke plumes changes over time and distance. Plume chemistry can contribute to the formation of ozone in the lower atmosphere. Particulates in smoke plumes can affect Earth's radiation balance with consequences for climate change.

The mission also is expected to help researchers interpret data from NASA satellites orbiting over the Arctic. NASA's Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, or CALIPSO, satellite can measure the height of various plume components in the atmosphere, information critical to predicting plume movement. Researchers will use data from ARCTAS to validate observations from CALIPSO and other satellites to improve model predictions of fire impacts on chemistry and climate.

"Aircraft experiments provide the greatest possible detail on the state of the atmosphere, but only for short, intense periods of sampling," Crawford said. "By conducting these flights in tight coordination with satellites and computer models, airborne observations lead to improvements in the interpretation of satellite observations and better representation of atmospheric processes in chemistry and climate models. This improves our confidence in models' ability to monitor and predict future changes."

The Yellowknife site also will host a portable science station from Pennsylvania State University that collects ground-based ozone and aerosol measurements, in conjunction with daily launches of balloon-borne instruments planned by Environment Canada and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The ARCTAS flights are being coordinated with research flights from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland being conducted by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique -- a French government-funded research organization -- and the German Aerospace Center.

The summer deployment of ARCTAS follows a spring deployment based in Fairbanks, Alaska. That mission focused on atmospheric composition, pollution transport pathways, and the formation of "arctic haze," which is fueled by sunlight that causes chemical reactions in pollutants that accumulate over the winter.


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Iran, which has seen angry protests since the Israeli raids began last week, also added its voice.

Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker, praised Palestinian resistance against the ground invasion.

"Zionists should know that Gaza will become their cemetery," he said on Sunday.

Even Egypt, which has faced criticism from the Arab and Muslim world, condemned the Israeli incursion, and called on the UN to work to end the violence.

In Britain, where one of the world's largest demonstrations against the Israeli incursion took place on Saturday, Gordon Brown, the prime minister, took a more measured approach, saying that Israel's ground offensive had created a "very dangerous moment" before calling for increased efforts on both sides to secure a ceasefire.

"First we need an immediate ceasefire, and that includes a stopping of the rockets into Israel. Secondly, we need some resolution of the problem over arms trafficking into Gaza and, thirdly, we need the borders and the crossings open and that will need some international solution."

For its part, the US state department said it told the Israeli government that any military action should be "mindful of the potential consequences to civilians".

It also condemned Hamas, saying the group was holding the people of Gaza "hostage" and contributing to a "very bad daily life" for the coastal territory's residents.

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PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity may still have big achievements ahead as they approach the fifth anniversaries of their memorable landings on Mars.

Of the hundreds of engineers and scientists who cheered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 3, 2004, when Spirit landed safely, and 21 days later when Opportunity followed suit, none predicted the team would still be operating both rovers in 2009.

"The American taxpayer was told three months for each rover was the prime mission plan," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The twins have worked almost 20 times that long. That's an extraordinary return of investment in these challenging budgetary times."

The rovers have made important discoveries about wet and violent environments on ancient Mars. They also have returned a quarter-million images, driven more than 21 kilometers (13 miles), climbed a mountain, descended into craters, struggled with sand traps and aging hardware, survived dust storms, and relayed more than 36 gigabytes of data via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. To date, the rovers remain operational for new campaigns the team has planned for them.

"These rovers are incredibly resilient considering the extreme environment the hardware experiences every day," said John Callas, JPL project manager for Spirit and Opportunity. "We realize that a major rover component on either vehicle could fail at any time and end a mission with no advance notice, but on the other hand, we could accomplish the equivalent duration of four more prime missions on each rover in the year ahead."

Occasional cleaning of dust from the rovers' solar panels by Martian wind has provided unanticipated aid to the vehicles' longevity. However, it is unreliable aid. Spirit has not had a good cleaning for more than 18 months. Dust-coated solar panels barely provided enough power for Spirit to survive its third southern-hemisphere winter, which ended in December.

"This last winter was a squeaker for Spirit," Callas said. "We just made it through."

With Spirit's energy rising for spring and summer, the team plans to drive the rover to a pair of destinations about 183 meters (200 yards) south of the site where Spirit spent most of 2008. One is a mound that might yield support for an interpretation that a plateau Spirit has studied since 2006, called Home Plate, is a remnant of a once more-extensive sheet of explosive volcanic material. The other destination is a house-size pit called Goddard.

"Goddard doesn't look like an impact crater," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. Squyres is principal investigator for the rover science instruments. "We suspect it might be a volcanic explosion crater, and that's something we haven't seen before."

A light-toned ring around the inside of the pit might add information about a nearby patch of bright, silica-rich soil that Squyres counts as Spirit's most important discovery so far. Spirit churned up the silica in mid-2007 with an immobile wheel that the rover has dragged like an anchor since it quit working in 2006. The silica was likely produced in an environment of hot springs or steam vents.

For Opportunity, the next major destination is Endeavour Crater. It is approximately 22 kilometers (14 miles) in diameter, more than 20 times larger than another impact crater, Victoria, where Opportunity spent most of the past two years. Although Endeavour is about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from Victoria, it is considerably farther as the rover drives on a route evading major obstacles.

Since climbing out of Victoria four months ago, Opportunity has driven more than a mile of its route toward Endeavour and stopped to inspect the first of several loose rocks the team plans to examine along the way. High-resolution images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which reached Mars in 2006, are helping the team plot routes around potential sand traps that were not previously discernable from orbit.

"We keep setting the bar higher for what these rovers can do," said Frank Hartman, a JPL rover driver. "Once it seemed like a crazy idea to go to Endeavour, but now we're doing it."

Squyres said, "The journeys have been motivated by science, but have led to something else important. This has turned into humanity's first overland expedition on another planet. When people look back on this period of Mars exploration decades from now, Spirit and Opportunity may be considered most significant not for the science they accomplished, but for the first time we truly went exploring across the surface of Mars."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rovers for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For more information about Spirit and Opportunity, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/rovers .

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Thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships surrounded Gaza's largest city and fought militants at close range Sunday, the first full day of an overwhelming ground offensive in the coastal territory.

Israel said it has inflicted a heavy blow against Hamas as it expands a weeklong offensive meant to stop rocket fire on southern Israel. But spiraling civilian casualties among Palestinians fueled an international outcry, even as the U.S. blocked approval of a U.N. Security Council statement Saturday night calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Israel's ground forces moved in after nightfall Saturday following hours of intense, fiery artillery shelling to clear the way, and Hamas warned that its fighters would turn Gaza into an Israeli "graveyard."

On Sunday, Israeli soldiers fought primarily in open areas in the launching zones used by Gaza's militants to send rockets raining down on Israeli cities. As the troops in three brigade-size formations moved in, residents of those Israeli cities began cautiously emerging from bomb shelters in hopes that the rocket fire would taper off.

Backing up the troops, mobile artillery units fired shells that exploded in veils of white smoke over Gaza's urban skyline. Tanks pushed south of Gaza City as deep as the abandoned settlement of Netzarim, which Israel left along with other communities when it pulled out of Gaza in 2005.

That effectively cut off Gaza City, the territory's largest population center with some 400,000 residents, from the rest of Gaza to the south.

Israel's military chief said Hamas fighters were trying to draw soldiers deeper into Gaza's sprawling, densely packed urban areas, where the military said militants were shielding themselves behind civilians.

"You entered like rats," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan told Israeli soldiers in a statement on Hamas' Al Aqsa TV. "Gaza will be a graveyard for you, God willing," he said.

Israeli forces have not yet entered urban areas, said Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, the chief army spokesman. He warned, however, that the operation was not a "school trip" and would be long and demanding.

The ground invasion risks turning into intense urban combat, with house-to-house fighting, sniper fire and booby-traps. Hamas is believed to have some 20,000 gunmen and has had time to prepare.

To guard against hidden explosives, Israel's ground forces moved through fields and orchards with bomb-sniffing dogs.

Since the ground assault began, 64 Palestinian civilians have been killed, said Dr. Moaiya Hassanain, a Health Ministry official. The new deaths brought the death toll in the Gaza Strip to more than 512 since Dec. 27. The tally is based on figures from the U.N. and Palestinian health officials as well as a count by The Associated Press.

Five Israelis have been killed since the offensive began. One soldier has been killed in the ground operation and about 40 were wounded, some of them in heavy exchanges of fire near the militant stronghold of Jebaliya, a town on Gaza City's northern outskirts, the army said. Heavy Israeli casualties could undermine what has so far been overwhelming public support for the operation.

At one hospital in the northern village of Beit Lahiya, medics carrying three injured children in their arms rushed them to treatment. One of the children had a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his head and covering his eyes.

An Israeli shell also struck an ambulance in the town, killing a paramedic, said Marwan Abu Ras, a hospital administrator. The relief organization Oxfam, which said the ambulance belonged to a partner organization, al-Awda Hospital, confirmed the shelling.

An airstrike hit another ambulance belonging to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza City, killing three other paramedics, said medic Jamal Hawajiri. That ambulance crew was driving to a Hamas training site where there were reports of wounded.

An Israeli army spokesman said he had no information on the incidents.

The Israeli army said it had killed dozens of armed Hamas gunmen, but Gaza officials could confirm only a handful of dead fighters — in part because rescue teams could not reach the battle zones.

Condemnation of Israel's ground operation poured in from the Middle East and Europe.

"The violence has to stop," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

U.S. officials maintained their firm support for Israel and squarely blamed Hamas.

Vice President Dick Cheney said Israel "didn't seek clearance or approval from us" before pushing into Gaza.

Sens. Harry Reid and Dick Durbin — the top two Democrats in the chamber — and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell all described Israel's actions as understandable.

"I think what the Israelis are doing is very important," Reid said. "I think this terrorist organization, Hamas, has got to be put away. They've got to come to their senses."

Israeli President Shimon Peres said that Israel had to push forward and that a cease-fire was pointless without a halt to Hamas rocket fire.

"Well, clearly, if there is somebody (who) can stop terror with a different strategy, we shall accept it," he said on ABC's "This Week."

"We shall not accept the idea that Hamas will continue to fire and we shall declare a cease-fire. It does not make any sense."

Palestinians said the Israeli military broke into broadcasts on the Hamas TV channel, Al Aqsa, appealing to Palestinians not to agree to serve as human shields for the militants. The message read, "Israel is acting only against Hamas and has no interest in harming you."

The ground operation is the second phase in an offensive that began as a weeklong aerial onslaught aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire that has reached deeper and deeper into Israel, threatening major cities and one-eighth of Israel's population of 7 million.

More than 45 rockets and mortar shells fell in Israel on Sunday morning, sending residents scrambling for bomb shelters. Four Israelis were lightly wounded.

In Gaza City, civilians cowered inside as battles raged, while terrified residents in other areas fled in fear. In the southern town of Rafah, one man loaded a donkey cart with mattresses and blankets preparing to flee.

Lubna Karam, 28, said she and the other nine members of her family spent the night huddled in the hallway of their Gaza City home. The windows of the house were blown out days earlier in an Israeli airstrike, and the family has been without electricity for a week, surviving without heat and eating cold food.

"We keep hearing the sounds of airplanes and we don't know if we'll live until tomorrow or not," she said.

Severe damage to Gaza's phone network was pushing the territory closer to complete isolation. The Palestinian phone company Paltel Group said 90 percent of Gaza's cellular service was down, as well as many landlines, because of frequent power cuts and the inability of technicians to reach work sites.

In his first public comments on the operation, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet Sunday that Israel could not allow its civilians to continue to be targeted by rockets from Gaza.

"This morning I can look every one of you in the eyes and say the government did everything before deciding to go ahead with the operation. This operation was unavoidable," he said.

Military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin told the Cabinet Hamas was using mosques, public institutions and private houses as ammunition stores. His comments were relayed to the press by the Cabinet secretary, Oved Yehezkel.

Israel on Sunday approved the mobilization of thousands of reservists, in addition to tens of thousands called up on Saturday. Defense officials said the extra forces could enable a far broader ground offensive.

The troops could also be used in the event Palestinian militants in the West Bank or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon decide to launch attacks, as Hezbollah did in 2006 when Israel was in the midst of a large operation in Gaza.

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Israeli troops and tanks crossed into the Gaza Strip under the cover of darkness Saturday, signaling the start of a bloody ground offensive that military leaders warned would not be short.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza a year and a half ago and has been attacking Israel with rockets, responded with defiant threats.

"We will fight till our last breath. Your invasion of Gaza will not be a cakewalk. Gaza will be your cemetery," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said.

Israeli officials called up tens of thousands of reservists and warned the incursion would not end quickly.

"It won't be easy and it won't be short," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a televised address. "We do not seek war, but we will not abandon our citizens to the ongoing Hamas attacks."

The escalation prompted Arab nations to ask the United Nations Security Council to call for an immediate ceasefire - echoing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's demand for an end to the violence.

The invasion started a week after Israel began slamming Hamas targets with air strikes, aiming to end rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza.

A column of military vehicles backed by combat helicopters rolled into northern Gaza as forces marched across the border.

Gun battles could be heard, and the night sky was illuminated by heavy artillery gunfire that sent bright lights streaking over the densely packed neighborhoods.

It was unclear how deeply the forces planned to drive into the strip, but security officials said the objective was not to reoccupy Gaza but to seize areas Hamas was using to launch rockets into Israel.

"Residents of Gaza are not the target of the operation," the Israeli Defense Force said in a statement.

"Those who use civilians, the elderly, women and children as 'human shields' are responsible for any and all injury to the civilian population," the statement said.

More than 400 Palestinians have been killed in a week of air strikes by Israel.

Before Saturday's troop movements, Israeli artillery pounded 40 targets, including a mosque where at least 11 people, including some children, died.

Hamas launched six rockets into Israeli territory, striking a house and a bomb shelter in the southern city of Ashkelon. There were no injuries reported.

With some 10,000 troops massed on the border ready to charge forward, the army dropped leaflets in downtown Gaza City early Saturday, warning people to stay off the streets.

Many residents spent the day trying to stockpile food and water, but after eight days of fighting, supplies were scarce and bread lines stretched for blocks.

As the invasion began, most people heeded the warnings and the city appeared abandoned with families huddled in their homes around the radio.

The Israeli Army also jammed Al-Aqsa TV, which is run by Hamas, and a 15-minute address was broadcast every hour by an Israeli speaking in Arabic.

"Hamas has abandoned you. Do not let Hamas use your children as human shields," said the broadcast.

Holed up in her Gaza City apartment, high school student Nour Saroor, 17, listened for news with her family.

"We are going to die," she said. "They are going to kill us. I am afraid to die," she said.

There was widespread international concern at the sudden escalation of violence.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband repeated calls for an "immediate ceasefire" and said the situation caused "alarm and dismay."

The French Foreign Ministry said, "France condemns the Israeli ground offensive against Gaza as it condemns the continuation of rocket firing."

A White House spokesman said President Bush was briefed in the afternoon by officials who have been in contact with the Israelis.

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"Israel would not have hit Gaza like this without a green light from Egypt," Hamdi Hassan, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition movement, told IPS. "The Egyptian government allowed this assault on Gaza in hopes of finishing off Hamas."

On Saturday (Dec. 27), Israel began a series of devastating air strikes on targets throughout the Gaza Strip, controlled since the summer of last year by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas. According to Israeli officials, the campaign -- which has included hundreds of air strikes -- comes in retaliation for rockets fired by Palestinian resistance factions.

More than 200 Palestinians were reportedly killed on the first day of the operation, making it the single most lethal day for Palestinians in the history of the 60-year-old conflict. Four Israelis, meanwhile, have reportedly been killed by Palestinian rocket fire since the air campaign began.

In the meantime, Israel has continued to amass tanks along its border with the Gaza Strip amid predictions of an imminent ground assault.

"What's happening in Gaza represents an unprecedented crime against humanity," said Hassan. "Enormous military power -- featuring the latest U.S. weaponry -- is being brought to bear against a poverty-stricken and largely defenceless population."

Ever since Hamas wrested control of the strip from the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) last year, Egypt -- like Israel -- has kept its border with the enclave tightly sealed. The border closures, in tandem with the neutralisation of the strip's airports and maritime ports by Israel, has effectively cut the territory off from the rest of the world, and brought it to the brink of humanitarian disaster.

"The international community has condoned the siege of Gaza and allowed the Palestinians to be punished for democratically electing Hamas," said Hassan, noting that the Islamist group swept the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

Egypt has said it cannot reopen the Rafah crossing, the sole transit point along Egypt's 14 km border with the Gaza Strip, in the absence of PA officials and EU observers, as stipulated in a 2005 U.S.-sponsored trilateral agreement between Israel, the PA and the EU.

Critics, however, reject this argument, and say there is no legal justification for keeping the border permanently closed to people and goods.

"Egypt isn't even a signatory to the agreement, which expired after one year and was never renewed," said Hassan. "Those cooperating with Israel are simply using this outdated agreement as an excuse to keep Rafah sealed."

Despite increasingly vocal demands -- by both street protestors and opposition MPs -- to open the border to aid convoys in the wake of the recent Israeli assaults, the Egyptian government has dragged its feet.

"For the first two days of the campaign, the authorities forbade all aid convoys from entering Gaza," Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt's Islamist-leaning Labour Party (officially frozen since 2000) told IPS. "On the third and fourth days, limited aid was allowed in -- but this was only due to mounting popular pressure."

In a televised address Dec. 30, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak defended Egypt's position by again referring to the 2005 border agreement. "Egypt doesn't want to sanctify the division (between the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and the PA-run West Bank) by opening the Rafah crossing in the absence of the PA and European observers," he said.

For the last five days, Egypt has witnessed thousands-strong demonstrations at university campuses, mosques and professional syndicates. Amid an increasingly tight security presence, protestors have called for the permanent reopening of the Rafah border crossing and the severing of Egypt's diplomatic relations with Israel.

"That protests are being staged all over Egypt -- and will persist as long as the aggression continues -- is an indication of the level of popular outrage," said Hassan. "If the government doesn't change its position and allow aid to flow freely into Gaza, the situation could become very dangerous."

Demonstrators in several Arab capitals have vented their rage outside Egyptian embassies. Protestors have reportedly attacked Egyptian consular offices in Sudan and Yemen.

"Demonstrations around Egyptian embassies abroad show that the Arab and Muslim people across the region recognise Egypt's complicity with Israel in keeping the border closed without legal justification," said Hassan.

Suspicions of Egyptian complicity with Israel against Hamas are not limited to the border issue. Many also suspect a degree of Egyptian-Israeli coordination in advance of the air campaign -- an impression reinforced by the fact that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Cairo, where she met with Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, less than 48 hours before the assaults began.

At a joint press conference with Aboul-Gheit in Cairo Dec. 25, Livni vowed to retaliate against Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. "This is something that has to be stopped," she said of the relatively ineffectual rocket salvoes. "And this is what we're going to do."

While Aboul-Gheit used the occasion to publicly urge restraint by both sides, many independent commentators believe that, while in Cairo, Livni received a tacit go-ahead from Egyptian officials for the campaign.

"It was at the Livni-Mubarak talks that Egypt gave Israel the green light to strike Gaza," said Hassan. Contentiously, he went on to point to statements by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum that Hamas had received false assurances from Egypt, immediately following the Cairo talks, that an Israeli attack on the strip was not imminent.

On Sunday (Dec. 28), a presidential spokesman strongly denied Barhoum's claims. "No Egyptian official sent any assurances to Hamas in this regard," he was quoted as saying in the state press.

Misgivings about possible Egyptian connivance with Israel against Hamas have not been limited to opposition figures and political commentators. On the campaign's third day, thousands of demonstrators in Cairo chanted: "Oh, Mubarak, what do you say? Why was Livni here anyway?"

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With this growth in confidence, the fog of war over the Israeli decision-making process leading into the latest phase of the operation is fast dissipating: following the Hamas decision not to renew the six-month ceasefire, as early as Christmas Eve -- three days before the launching of the air assault -- the full Israeli cabinet had given the war the green light including, in principle, a major ground incursion.

Then, last Thursday, after Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's parrying trip to President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, the leadership triangle -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Livni -- discussed developments from midnight into the early hours of Friday, then convened a secret security cabinet meeting at the defence headquarters compound in Tel Aviv.

The meeting lasted until well after the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. Religious ministers, though willing to transgress the Sabbath, were persuaded by the prime minister to depart at 4 pm "to avoid arousing suspicion that something is imminent." They left behind proxy votes, adding to the broad support for the ground operation. There were only two abstentions -- from ministers who wanted to include a 'third half' of the war, overthrow of the Hamas regime.

Not only does the war continue to enjoy widespread public support, but Israeli officials are basking in a perception that their operation enjoys a fair degree of legitimacy in the region, and around the world: officials point to Egypt's blaming of Hamas as "responsible" for the slide into hostilities, the failure of the Arab League to adopt a unified stand, the postponement of any UN Security Council resolution until at least midweek and the Czech declaration (as rotating president of the EU) acknowledging the "defensive" nature of the Israeli offensive. Above all, they stress the unflinching support of U.S. President George W. Bush, the silence of president-elect Barack Obama and the fact that no U.S. envoy has been dispatched to the area.

Overall, Israel may be upbeat, but Defence Minister Ehud Barak is at pains to stress that not all is rosy: "I don't want to delude anyone. The ground operation will be neither easy, nor simple," he warned at Sunday morning's cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. A prime target is control of the launching pads from which Hamas units have been rocketing towns and villages up to 40 km inside Israel. The declared objective is to change the rules on the ground so as to eradicate the Hamas will to continue firing, not necessarily its capability to do so.

Israeli officials believe also that the decision to launch the ground operation puts Israel well on the way to accomplishing its broader mission, the restoration of long-term deterrence. Danny Rotschild, a major general in the reserves, interviewed on Israel Radio, said, "Deterrence is composed of two facets -- not only a determination to act, but the willingness to take difficult decisions to act." This, added Rotschild, is now clear to all in the region -- Palestinians, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran.

Hamas may have its back to the wall but there is growing concern that the longer they manage to survive the Israeli assault -- from the air and on the ground -- and even to continue shooting into Israel, Hamas could gain in legitimacy. It already seems to be doing so. One Palestinian, interviewed on international television, said scornfully, "The Israelis say they are fighting Hamas and not the Palestinian people of Gaza. We all Hamas."

Israeli commentator Zvi Barel writes in the liberal daily Haaretz of the possibility that Hamas will still be in a position to call some shots. "When the war ends, Gaza will no longer be ruled by a 'terrorist organisation', but by a government with status which will set terms for any regional move Israel aspires to carry out. Hamas stands to gain through war what it has failed to achieve through its sweeping victory in the Palestinians election."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is straddling a difficult line -- between the need in adversity for national unity under his rule, and the lingering hope nurtured by some Palestinians that, for all its bravado, Hamas will end up having its wings clipped.

Full-fledged diplomatic efforts for a new reality in the aftermath of the war have yet to begin in earnest, at a time when a series of transitions of power are taking place -- in the U.S., in Israel, and possibly within the Palestinian Authority where President Mahmoud Abbas may be forced to call new elections. At the peak of the fighting, one thing is already clear: The outcome of the war will also largely be about who on the Palestinian side will have their legitimacy enhanced or reduced once the guns fall silent -- Hamas or President Abbas.

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"Their shooting has no point and no logic. Nobody understands what are Hamas's goals," said Peres, speaking alongside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who was briefing the President on the state of the war Tuesday evening.

"The Gaza offensive will not end until our goals are reached," said Olmert in response to reports that Israeli defence officials were considering a 48-hour truce in the devastating air attacks prior to possibly launching a major ground operation.

So, what are Israel's goals?

There seems to be national consensus -- at least among Israeli Jews -- on the two declared objectives of the military operation: long-term ceasefire, and deterrence -- that Hamas is compelled to hold its fire.

The Israeli consensus extends to another front -- there is already a 'ceasefire' with respect to the Feb. 10 Knesset (parliament) election. So much so, that the front-runner in the polls, right-wing Likud opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, has been enlisted to front Israel's information campaign to the world.

Netanyahu, even within the guise of national advocate, is positing the war targets in much starker terms than the governing centre-left coalition. On Wednesday morning he stressed in an interview on Israel Radio that the choice lies with Hamas -- agree to a real ceasefire, or risk Israel following up its offensive and forcing regime change in Gaza. Otherwise, argued Netanyahu, Israel would have achieved nothing "since next time Hamas will be in a position to shell and rocket towns as far afield as Tel Aviv itself."

When former prime minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza three years ago, he was less focused on creating conditions favourable for a full-fledged peace process, and more on positioning Israel better to fight the Palestinians if that became necessary. Since then, and especially with the ensuing Hamas takeover of Gaza 18 months ago -- after Hamas won the election in Gaza in 2006 -- Israel's punishing military action now could never have been legitimate to the international community.

Despite the temptation to take the 'smash 'em to bits' option all the way and to oust Hamas from power "once and forever", that does not seem to be on the cards. There is simply no answer to the question of who would take charge of Gaza in place of Hamas: Israel is not interested in re-engaging Gaza and, in the present circumstances, it is unimaginable for the Palestinian Authority to be carried back to Gaza on the shoulders of the Israel military. Israel has been through that in 1982 in Lebanon after they routed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and tried to install a friendly regime in Beirut.

A second option would be to go all the way with the Gaza disengagement policy -- leaving Israel no longer responsible for any developments in Gaza. That too, however, is unfeasible, at least in the short term, since it would mean permanent Hamas entrenchment in Gaza and allowing it to argue -- as Hezbollah did in Lebanon two years ago -- that it has beaten Israel in battle.

It would in effect transform the two-state solution into a three-state solution -- between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza separately, something that would change the agreed parameters of the whole peace process and thus condemn any negotiations on the future at least on east Jerusalem and the West Bank to definite failure; few in the international community, or in the Arab world, are keen on that.

Thus, the legitimacy of self-defence being so critical to Israel, whatever secret wishes they harbour, the government projects its war aims in not overly-ambitious terms: make conditions so painful for Hamas that it will have to subscribe to a long-standing ceasefire.

That said, Israeli leaders continue to retain an element of ambiguity about the purpose of the war. Sizeable ground forces have been massed around Gaza. But even within Israel, there is growing concern about whether the use of force might not be disproportionate.

Israeli Television Channel 2 reported an opinion poll conducted on Wednesday which shows 58 percent of the Israeli public opposed to a ceasefire, as against 42 percent who believe a ceasefire should come into force right away. Analysts noted that of the 42 percent in favour many are likely to be Arab Israelis who appear to be strongly critical of the war. Arabs comprise almost 20 percent of the Israeli population.

Against this potential escalation, prize-winning novelist David Grossman has called for a temporary pause in the fighting by Israel, in effect to test Hamas's intentions while implicitly testing this Israeli strategic ambiguity. In the liberal Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, Grossman suggested: "We will hold our fire unilaterally and completely for the next 48 hours. Even if you fire at Israel, we will not respond...Israel must constantly check to see when its force has crossed the line of legitimate and effective response and from what point it is once again trapped in the usual spiral of violence."

The coming 48 hours will be critical in testing an ever-relevant equation in Middle East stability -- will Israel accept the limits of its own power, and will the Palestinians -- in this instance Hamas -- abide by the limits of their own weakness? (END/2008)

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"Even before Israel's latest bombardment of Gaza, the so-called peace process was dead," Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt's Islamist-leaning Labour Party (officially frozen since 2000), told IPS.

On Saturday (Dec. 27), Israel began a series of punishing air strikes throughout the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas. According to Israeli officials, the campaign comes in retaliation for rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian resistance factions.

On Monday (Dec. 29), Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Ahmed Qureia announced the suspension of negotiations with Israel.

"It's impossible to hold peace negotiations with Israel while its army is committing massacres against our people in the Gaza Strip," Qureia was quoted as saying. "U.S.-sponsored talks with Israel are now suspended due to the bloody scene that the Gaza Strip is witnessing."

The current round of negotiations began in November 2007 with a peace summit in Annapolis in Maryland (in the U.S.), where U.S. President George W. Bush voiced his hope that a just settlement of the conflict could be reached before the end of his final year in office. The Annapolis summit was followed by a series of negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The PA rules the West Bank.

Up until this point, however, Abbas's frequent talks with his Israeli counterpart have failed to bring any gains to the Palestinian side, with Israel continuing to reject key Palestinian demands. These demands -- encapsulated in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative -- include an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, the return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Abbas's negotiations with Olmert have also failed to significantly reduce the number of Israeli military roadblocks riddling the Palestinian West Bank, or stop the continuous construction of Jewish-only "settlements" on occupied Arab land.

According to Hussein, the Annapolis summit and the ensuing round of negotiations -- like other past U.S.-backed peace initiatives -- was never meant to produce results.

"These intermittent 'peace' projects like Annapolis amount to little more than public relations exercises -- they have never achieved anything positive," he said. "They are ploys used to deceive the Arab governments and people. They are intended to fail."

Bush's call for a Palestinian state before the end of 2008, Hussein added, "was never even remotely credible."

Nevertheless, in mid-December, the 15-member United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution, backed by the U.S. and Russia, calling for "an intensification of diplomatic efforts" aimed at reaching a viable settlement. The resolution -- the council's first on the issue in almost five years -- urged both sides to "refrain from any steps that could undermine confidence or prejudice the outcome of negotiations."

"Since the resolution doesn't demand that either side make concessions, it's hard to see how it will change the status quo," Abdelaziz Shadi, political science professor and coordinator of Cairo University's Israel Studies Programme, told IPS.

"In any case," said Hussein, "the recent criminal assault on the Gaza Strip proves that Israel will never respect the terms of any UNSC decision."

The issue of holding talks with Israel, meanwhile, has split the Palestinian cause into two rival camps. While Abbas's U.S.-backed Fatah movement, which heads the PA, has maintained a strategy of negotiation with the self-proclaimed Jewish state, the Islamist resistance group Hamas -- which won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 -- follows a strict policy of resistance against Israel.

Since Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the PA in a pre-emptive coup last year, the two factions have seen bitter rivalry, with intermittent fighting and mass arrests. Meanwhile, Israel and Egypt -- with the blessings of the PA -- have sealed their borders with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, effectively isolating it from the rest of the world and bringing it to the brink of humanitarian disaster.

"There doesn't appear to be any hope for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas," said Shadi. "While vainly negotiating with Israel, Abbas has refused to talk to Hamas, which he still resents for its seizure of Gaza last year."

To make matters worse, Dec. 19 saw the expiration of a fragile, six-month ceasefire agreement between Israel and resistance factions -- chief among them Hamas -- in the Gaza Strip.

Brokered by Egypt in mid-June, the truce called for the halt of Israeli military operations against targets in the Gaza Strip and the gradual reopening of Gaza's borders. In return, resistance factions in the Hamas-run enclave were to refrain from launching cross-border rocket attacks on Israel.

Even before its official expiration, the ceasefire had been subject to frequent violations. These included a number of deadly Israeli military operations in Gaza and retaliatory rocket fire -- which caused little or no damage -- by Palestinian resistance groups.

According to Egyptian commentators, Israel bears most of the blame for the collapse of the ceasefire, particularly in light of its refusal to open its borders with the Gaza Strip to food and medical supplies, desperately needed by the strip's roughly 1.5 million inhabitants.

"Along with staging numerous attacks in the Gaza Strip in violation of the ceasefire's terms, Israel has continued with minor exceptions to keep Gaza's borders tightly sealed," said Hussein. "The Israelis were the only real beneficiaries of the ceasefire, which served to halt rocket attacks from Gaza for the most part while allowing Israel to maintain its siege of the territory."

Making the future of the peace process even more tenuous is the fact that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert led by the 'centrist' Kadima Party, may soon be replaced by one led by the extremist Likud Party. According to Israeli opinion polls, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu -- known for his opposition to negotiations -- is tipped to win upcoming Israeli elections in February.

According to Shadi, though, whatever political party heads the next government in Israel -- be it Labour, Kadima or Likud -- the Palestinian peace track is sure to suffer. "No matter who wins elections in Israel, they can be counted on not to offer any concessions whatsoever to the Palestinians," he said.

Shadi went on to note that Israel's latest assaults on the Gaza Strip must be seen within the context of Israeli domestic electoral politics.

"The electoral period in Israel -- when candidates try to prove their military credentials -- is always an occasion for escalations against the Palestinians, not for taking moderate positions vis-à-vis the peace process," he said. "In the days and weeks ahead, Israel can be expected to take further military steps against the resistance." (END/2008)

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The statement was predictable because the United States, a traditionally loyal Israeli ally, would never agree to anything smacking of a "censure" or "condemnation" of Israel -- even as the death toll rose to more than 300 Palestinians, mostly civilians. A single Israeli was killed during the three-day attacks.

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, points out that the Security Council "reflected the strategic goals and alliances of the most powerful veto- wielding countries, particularly that of the United States."

"But other elected members of the Council, including sometimes principled non-aligned governments in South Africa, Indonesia, Libya and elsewhere, surrendered to U.S. pressure," Bennis told IPS.

Besides the five veto-wielding permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. -- the non-permanent members also include Belgium, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Croatia, Italy, Panama and Vietnam.

"Clearly the Security Council has abdicated its responsibility; its statement rejected any acknowledgement of Israeli violations of international law, let alone anything to hold Israel accountable for those violations," said Bennis, author of several publications, including ‘Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN.’

At the time of going to press, there were no further scheduled meetings of the Security Council even though Israel continued air strikes, with a possible ground attack in the works.

The President of the General Assembly Father Miguel d'Escoto, however, was consulting with member states over possible diplomatic action by the 192- member Assembly.

With the Security Council deadlocked, Bennis said the General Assembly, the most representative and most democratic organ of the United Nations, must now take the lead in responding to the latest crisis in Gaza.

She said the Assembly should meet in emergency session -- and should remain in session until a clear plan is devised and approved -- to determine how to implement the U.N.’s responsibility to protect occupied peoples facing military aggression and to hold the Occupying Power -- Israel -- accountable for its violations of international law.

"There are no vetoes in the General Assembly; U.S. diplomats maintain the power of economic, political and diplomatic threats and bribes, but they have no legal way to stop a determined majority from acting."

She also said that important U.N. officials -- including d'Escoto Brockmann and the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Territories Prof. Richard Falk -- have issued statements making clear both Israel’s violations and U.N. obligations to respond and to hold Israel accountable.

With the Security Council paralysed by U.S. veto threats and other Council members’ fear of the U.S., the General Assembly must assert its pre- eminence in the U.N. system, relying if necessary on the ‘Uniting for Peace’ precedent, to take real responsibility as required by the U.N. Charter, to stop the Israeli assault and protect the Palestinian people, Bennis added.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, trying to be even-handed in his statement, "condemned" the rocket attacks by the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which prompted the Israeli military onslaught, and called on both Israel and Hamas to "halt their acts of violence."

"A cease-fire must be declared immediately. They must also curb their inflammatory rhetoric," Ban told reporters Monday.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay not only condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas but also criticised "Israel’s disproportionate use of force."

Asked if the secretary-general should have made a stronger statement, Ambassador Riyad Mansour of the Palestine Observer Mission told reporters Monday: "We are satisfied with some of the language he used -- specifically when he referred to Israel complying with its obligations under international humanitarian law."

"Yes, if it is up to us, we would like to see the secretary-general use different language with regard to certain issues," he said. Nevertheless, "all in all, we believe that the position of the secretary-general is reflecting closer to the consensus [in the Security Council]".

D'Escoto, on the other hand, has been harshly critical of the actions of Israel.

The Israeli air strikes, he said, represent severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions -- both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war.

Those violations include: collective punishment, targeting civilians, and disproportionate military response.

D'Escoto said that the 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the actions of a few militants.

He also pointed out that the air strikes have not only destroyed every police and security office of Gaza’s elected government, but also killed and injured hundreds of civilians. At least one strike reportedly hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university.

"I remind all member states of the United Nations," D’Escoto said, "that the U.N. continues to be bound to an independent obligation to protect any civilian population facing massive violations of international humanitarian law regardless of what country may be responsible for those violations."

"I call on all Member States, as well as officials and every relevant organ of the U.N. system, to move expeditiously not only to condemn Israel’s serious violations, but to develop new approaches to providing real protection for the Palestinian people," he said in a statement released Sunday.

Asked if the situation would change when the new Barack Obama administration takes office January 22, Bennis said that Israeli military strategists clearly believed they were safer launching the Gaza assault while [U.S. President George W.] Bush, and not Obama, was in the White House.

‘It is unclear whether President Obama will have a different policy for the Palestinian-Israeli issue than his predecessor."

"What is clear is that if critics of Washington’s business-as-usual uncritical military, economic and political support for Israel remain silent, hoping for a serious change, there will be no change," she predicted.

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Indeed, if the current campaign goes on much longer and the Israelis launch a major ground invasion of Gaza as they now appear to be preparing to do, Obama could face a major international crisis -- comparable to Israel’s failed 2006 war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah -- just as he takes office in three weeks’ time.

"With this assault, the fallout has already started to spread considerably beyond the constituency of people who are Palestinians," noted Helena Cobban, a veteran Middle East analyst, who cited popular protests in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world since the Israeli campaign began Saturday on her blog, justworldnews.org.

"It has already started, and we can confidently expect that the longer Israel’s assault is maintained, the higher the regional stakes will rise."

The Israeli attacks, which came a week after the expiration of an increasingly shaky six-month cease-fire, have so far reportedly killed more than 300 Palestinians, while two Israelis have died in rocket attacks launched from Gaza.

While Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak initially insisted that Israel’s war aims were designed to re-instate and strengthen the cease-fire, the former prime minister who hopes to reclaim that post as head of the Labour Party in Feb. 10 elections, appeared to broaden them in a speech to the parliament Monday in which he pledged "war to the bitter end" against Hamas -- the Islamist party that controls Gaza. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said Israel aimed to "topple Hamas."

As with the 2006 war, the administration of President George W. Bush has offered strong backing for the Israeli attack, demanding that Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to a "sustainable and durable ceasefire."

"The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe at Bush’s ranch in Texas, where the outgoing president is spending the Christmas holiday. Johndroe called the leadership of Hamas "nothing but thugs" during a briefing on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, has declined to comment on the violence and the threat of larger crisis. "The fact is that there is only one president at a time, and that president now is George Bush," Obama's top political adviser, David Axelrod, said on a nationally televised public-affairs programme Sunday.

Axelrod went on to quote Obama as defending Israel’s retaliation against Gaza-based militants who launched rockets into the southern Israeli town of Sderot when he visited there in July.

"If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that… And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing," Obama had said at the time. In his speech to the Knesset Monday, Barak significantly repeated the quotation in defending Israel’s action.

During the presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly insisted that he -- in contrast to his predecessor -- would make Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations a top priority "from day one" in his administration. He re- iterated his intention explicitly when he introduced the senior members of his foreign-policy team in Chicago earlier this month.

A number of Obama’s informal advisers -- including former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski -- have publicly urged the president-elect to follow through on that commitment, arguing that nothing could do more to help Washington recover its badly damaged credibility in the Arab and Islamic worlds than to lead a major effort at achieving a two- state solution.

But such an effort is now seen as increasingly problematic, particularly if the Gaza conflict escalates further, according to most experts here.

"It clearly, clearly complicates any effort to engage in a vigorous diplomatic effort, because the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip has necessarily weakened [Palestine Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and his efforts to negotiate with the Israelis," said Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, who also noted the conflict also created "an untenable situation for the Syrians to continue" their Turkish-mediated peace talks with Israel.

The violence "is going to make an already dramatically complicated situation worse," Aaron Miller, a former senior U.S. state department Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars, told the Wall Street Journal. "Obama’s going to inherit a crisis without the capacity to do much about it," he told Politico.com.

Not everyone is so pessimistic, however. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator currently based at the New America Foundation and the Century Fund here, noted that the current crisis serves as a reminder that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict cannot be ignored.

"[These] events should be ‘Exhibit A’ in why the next U.S. government cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to ‘manage’ it -- as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself onto the agenda," he wrote in his blog, prospects for peace.com.

"The new administration needs to embark upon a course of forceful regional diplomacy that breaks fundamentally from past efforts," he added, noting that a consensus within the foreign policy establishment has emerged in favour of a more-assertive peace-making role, including setting forth the basic elements of final settlement, as laid out by Brzezinski and Scowcroft, among other major players.

Cook also agreed that Obama’s decisive electoral victory and his vision of more aggressive Middle Eastern diplomacy will give him more leverage over the Israelis who "aren’t looking for a fight with" with the new president.

Still, the ongoing violence makes it "hard to see any scenario which produces remotely positive results for anyone involved," according to Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University who specialises in Arab media and public opinion.

"A bloody retaliation against Israelis seems highly likely, and if Abbas is seen as supporting the Israeli offensive against his political rivals, then Hamas may well emerge from this even stronger within Palestinian politics," he wrote in his widely read abuaardvark.com blog. "The offensive is highly unlikely to get rid of Hamas, but it will likely leave an even more poisoned, polarised and toxic regional environment for a new President who had pledged to re- engage with the peace process."

Lynch and Cook, among others, also believe that the continued fighting in Gaza will re-open and widen the breach -- already made clear during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war between Arab regime allied to the U.S. and their own publics -- to the benefit of Iran and its regional allies, not to mention radical Sunni forces, including al Qaeda.

The fact that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called Monday for Arabs and Muslims to launch "uprisings" in support of Gaza "should be cause for concern," according to Cook, who noted that the catalyst for the 2006 war was an attack on an Israeli patrol designed to divert the Israelis from ongoing military operations in Gaza.

"Obama has scrupulously [and wisely] adhered to the ‘one President at a time’ formula in foreign policy up to this point," Lynch wrote, "but you have to wonder how long he can sit by and watch the prospects for meaningful change in the region battered while the administration sits by and cheers."

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The strike, inspired by opposition Fatah party-affiliated union leaders, was predictably strongest in the West Bank where Fatah have their main base, but was also surprisingly solid in Hamas’ Gaza heartland. Approximately half of Palestinian state employees have walked out, with support being strongest amongst teachers, while many police have stayed on duty, purportedly to prevent clashes between Fatah and Hamas supporters. The government has declared the strike illegal and called for workers to return to work.

A union spokesman has played down the anti-government nature of the strike, styling it as lobbying, saying “our strike is not directed against the government but it is a message to the government that they must act to end the crisis of salaries.” Most schools in the West Bank are closed as the new term begins, and Fatah claims that 70% of Gaza schools are closed too. Hamas has deployed armed men at schools to try, unsuccessfully, to ‘persuade’ teachers to return to work, while in the West Bank Hamas supporters tried to smash open padlocked school gates while armed Fatah supporters stood outside others to “enforce” the strike.

While the strike is widely seen as a Fatah tactic to gain bargaining power in their attempts to form a ‘unity government’ with Hamas, a Hamas spokesman has said the strike is undermining 'national unity' and any such plans. The Fatah-affiliated union leader said the strike has “succeeded 95% so far”. One teacher opposed the strike as a party-political spat that was only harming ordinary people, "they're driving us crazy, both Fatah and Hamas. They haven't done anything to get the Palestinian people ahead." However in Gaza many teachers who do not support Fatah have nonetheless honoured the strike out of solidarity with their colleagues.

Meanwhile in Israel two Bedouin schools have been hit by strikes after government ministers ignored the findings of an inspection, which reported overcrowding and safety hazards. Also in the Israeli district of Talibeh, municipal workers including teaching assistants are striking over the 7-month non-payment of salaries, while school strikes are affecting 42 Israeli schools over the lack of defences against Qassam rocket fire.

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