The Bloodiest Day in Gaza

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The standoff in Gaza over a captured Israeli soldier on Thursday produced the most intense military clashes of the current round of conflict, as Israeli troops, tanks and aircraft battled Palestinian militants in the northern part of the territory. It also produced the highest casualty toll in an Israeli military operation since 2004. More than 20 Palestinians — some of them reportedly civilians — and one Israeli soldier were killed. Two Israeli soldiers were also wounded, as were around 40 Palestinians.

The stated aim of the Israeli campaign at its outset was to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a soldier captured by militants during a raid on an army outpost on the Israeli side of the border. Israel has conducted air strikes throughout the Gaza Strip, but the initial focus of the ground effort was on the south, where it is believed Shalit is being held. Further incursions soon followed in northern Gaza, provoking intense fighting in the neighborhoods of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, just inside the border with Israel. Israeli officials say their purpose in the north is to prevent militants from firing Qassam rockets into Israel by creating a "buffer zone" inside Gaza — a goal that took on added urgency when a longer-range version of the rocket reached the Israeli city of Ashkelon Tuesday night.

In recent days, Israeli soldiers had taken positions inside Palestinian homes in Beit Hanoun, and last night more than a dozen Israeli tanks pushed into three former Israeli settlements and also into Beit Lahiya. Scattered exchanges of fire Wednesday night had turned, by early Thursday, into a series of running battles, with Palestinian fighters firing automatic weapons and RPGs, and the Israelis firing from tanks and other armored vehicles positioned between homes on village streets, and later calling in support from helicopter gunships. Israeli officials say their soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper, while the Palestinian fatalities came from missile and artillery fire in northern Gaza, and also in the southern town of Khan Yunis, according to witnesses, hospital officials the Israeli military's own account. By nightfall, the Israelis had pushed several miles into Gaza, toward the main cities in the north, and taken over more houses for use as outposts.

Israeli officials insist their operation is a temporary one in response to specific circumstances. But the incursion appears to have escalated the confrontation with the militant groups, potentially drawing Israel ever deeper into Gaza. Israeli efforts over recent months to halt Qassam fire have not worked. The diplomatic and military efforts undertaken in pursuit of freeing the captive soldier have not, it appears, yielded the breakthrough that might bring him home. And the fact that Israel is also targeting the political infrastructure of the Hamas government suggests that no matter how limited the objectives of the current campaign, its impact could be long-lasting and its consequences severe.

There is still a chance a deal could be worked out, though the efficacy of Egyptian mediation efforts are, at this point, questionable. Some reports assert that Shalit's captors have significantly scaled back earlier demands for the release of more than 1,000 prisoners. And Shalit's father, Noam, has publicly called for the Israeli government to release prisoners, as it has done in the past, in order to bring his son home.

Given the expanded objectives of the Israeli campaign and the possibility that the escalation of fighting creates its own momentum, Israel's original purpose in reentering Gaza might soon be forgotten. "We have no intention of drowning in the Gaza swamp," said Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz Thursday, adding that if Shalit is returned the troops will pull back. But it is the confrontation in northern Gaza, far away from where Shalit is believed to be held, that threatens to spiral out of control.

Soon after Peretz spoke, Palestinian Interior Minister Saeed Siyam issued a call to arms for all members of the various Palestinian security forces, urging them to band together against the Israelis and honor what he called their "religious and moral duty to stand up to this aggression and cowardly Zionist invasion." Other Palestinian officials appealed to the international community to do something to forestall further bloodshed. For those around the world hoping that the very obvious perils of escalation will walk all parties back from the precipice, Thursday's events — and the absence of any sign of significant international intervention — offer cause for alarm.