The latest upsurge in fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza was triggered by what Israelis saw as a rare opportunity: Five top Hamas commanders, in charge of training commandos, had made the cardinal mistake of commuting to work at a former naval facility in the same car. Once Israel spotted this security slip-up by the Hamas men, they blasted the vehicles with guided missiles from circling aircraft. "We destroyed Hamas' training department," exulted one Israeli military intelligence officer.
But Hamas exacted a toll to avenge the deaths of what Israel claims were Iranian-trained senior instructors. The Islamist militia opened up its arsenal, hauling out medium-range Grad rockets which struck the port city of Ashkelon, while dozens of short-ranged Qassams peppered Sderot and other towns near Gaza on Wednesday, killing an Israeli student.
The cycle of violence spiraled over the next 48 hours. Palestinians fired more rockets, and the Israelis struck back with air strikes and a ground asssault, killing 21 Palestinians including four children, according to Gaza sources.
The Israeli government is under mounting pressure from civilians living within range of Gaza's rocket barrages, and from right-wing politicians, to launch a major ground offensive inside the coastal strip that houses 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel, strongly supported by Washington, has tightened its siege on Gaza in the hope of stopping the constant rocket attacks.
The Israeli military is drawing up battle plans for an assault on Gaza, but neither the cabinet nor the generals are keen on reconquering the teeming Palestinian territory, a move that could lead to heavy casualties among Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians, and that could drag on for months.
An Israeli sweep into Gaza could also play into the hands of Hamas. Sources within the organization have told TIME that there is nothing the military commanders within Hamas would like better than to provoke a major Israeli assault. Hamas would count on an international backlash against Israel if it were to roll its tanks into Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, for a long and messy occupation. Even Israel's firmest ally, the U.S. might not approve such a potentially bloody move. Security aides to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have said they had been told by the Bush Administration that Washington had warned the Israelis not to venture into Gaza.
Not all Hamas leaders favor goading Israel into attacking Gaza, however. More pragmatic leaders within the militant organization know that any public relations victory against Israel would be offset by heavy Palestinian casualties. These moderates are advocating a "cooling down" period with Israel. Nor was it lost on Hamas leaders that Israeli aircraft destroyed the empty Interior Ministry building as a reminder that if the fighting escalates, Israel might begin targeting Hamas' political leadership.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem