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Primer on the Israeli-Hamas conflict

The escalated bloodshed in the Middle East is creating political concerns throughout the region and in the United States. Here are answers to some of the key questions associated with the crisis.

How did the latest round of violence begin?

Over the weekend, Israel began airstrikes against the Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, in response to rocket attacks against nearby Israeli communities. The Gaza Strip is a sliver of land about 140 square miles along the Mediterranean Sea that Israel captured from Egypt during the 1967 Middle East War. Israel, which occupied the area until 2005, still controls most of the border and the airspace and access from the sea.

What has been the toll?

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The three-day death toll among the Palestinians stands at more than 350, with about 1,400 others wounded. Most of those killed were members of the security forces, according to Hamas. But more than five dozen of those killed were women and children, according to the United Nations.

At least three Israeli civilians have been killed in rocket attacks since the offensive began.

Why is Israel attacking Hamas?

Israel argues that it was forced to act to curb the Hamas rocket attacks.

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What is Hamas?

Hamas is an acronym based on the Islamic Resistance Movement’s Arabic name. The Islamist group was founded in 1987 with a goal of destroying Israel. Hamas runs social service programs in Gaza and is a political party that won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006. Western governments consider Hamas a terrorist organization and have shunned the group because it has refused to formally accept Israel’s right to exist.

Does Hamas speak for all Palestinians?

No. Hamas gunmen took full control of Gaza in the summer of 2007, after the short-lived unity government with the secularist Fatah faction collapsed. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas controls the West Bank, the larger Palestinian area. The West would prefer to deal with Abbas, who has shown a willingness to negotiate with Israel, and it has tried to topple Hamas with economic and political sanctions.

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If Hamas is so opposed to Israel, why did it agree to a truce?

Hamas had hoped to put an end to the crippling blockade, but the cease-fire collapsed in November and expired Dec. 19. Abbas has blamed Hamas for prompting the Israeli attack by refusing to extend the cease-fire, which had been negotiated with Egypt’s help.

What has been the response to the Israeli attacks in the Arab world?

Anti-Israeli demonstrations have been held in several countries, including Britain, France and Saudi Arabia. Syria and Iran are strong supporters of Hamas, and Syria has broken off indirect talks with Israel mediated by Turkey and aimed at resolving border issues stemming from past wars.

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What about Egypt?

Egypt has opposed Islamic radical groups, including its own Muslim Brotherhood, which helped give birth to Hamas. Egypt has had a difficult relationship with Hamas-controlled Gaza because they share a border. In the current conflict, clashes have been reported between Palestinians and Egyptian security forces at the border crossing, and Egypt has prevented Gazans fleeing the Israeli attacks from crossing into its territory.

What about the U.S.?

President Bush will leave office Jan. 20 and will be succeeded by President-elect Barack Obama. The changing of the guard has created a bit of a power vacuum; the Republican policies continue while the world watches to see what the Democrats will do.

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What has the Bush administration done?

The White House on Monday again blamed Hamas for declining to renew the truce, but White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe asked Israel to avoid civilian casualties in its attacks.

Bush, vacationing in Texas, has spoken with King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. In an effort to repair the cease-fire, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called leaders in Israel and Arab countries.

What about the Obama administration?

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Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, has repeatedly said that the United States can have only one president at a time and that Bush is in charge until the inauguration. But the Israeli-Hamas conflict could present an early test for Obama and his expected secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

During the presidential campaign, Obama insisted that he was a strong ally of Israel despite rumors that he would be more receptive to the Palestinian position. Obama has said he would like to give a speech in the Muslim world in hope of repairing a relationship strained by several issues, including the Iraq war.

How do Israeli politics figure in the equation?

Israel is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections Feb. 10, with hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a favorite to return to power, according to some polls. Other candidates include Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Barak is leading the military operation, and his candidacy could benefit if the offensive succeeds in stopping the rockets. An Israeli television poll showed 81% of respondents backed the weekend attacks.

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michael.muskal@latimes.com


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