Gaza Clashes Cloud Rice's Trip

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Tara Todras / Whitehill / Getty

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives for a meeting at the residence of Palestinian Prime Minister in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 4, 2008

In the southern Israeli port city of Ashkelon, the bull's-eye of Palestinian rocket attacks, pharmacists noted that the sale of tranquilizers shot up by more than 60% in the past week as residents sought to calm their shattered nerves. But with Ashkelon's 120,000 citizens now in the range of the Russian-made Grad rockets recently hauled out of Hamas' arsenals to escalate the confrontation, the drug of choice for Israeli leaders and U.S. officials trying to revive peace talks is more likely to be aspirin or any other pain reliever to help treat their frequent headaches.

The fighting in Gaza that left more than 100 Palestinians and three Israelis dead last weekend has turned a routine visit to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday into a desperate mission to salvage U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations.

It may be too late for that.

President Mahmoud Abbas, more isolated than ever, is struggling to prove his relevance to the Palestinians by taking a tougher stance with Israel after the heavy death toll in Gaza. The Israelis, meanwhile, may have ceased their offensive inside the Palestinian territory, but they have every intention of returning to Gaza in the hope of eradicating the rocket threat to Ashkelon as soon as Rice flies out.

Rice and Abbas both looked grim as they exited their afternoon meeting in Ramallah. A presidential adviser told TIME that Abbas had rebuffed Rice's pleas that he resume negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, broken off as the Palestinian death toll mounted during Israeli ground and air attacks in Gaza. Israel launched its operation in retaliation for a shower of long- and short-range rockets from Palestinian militants.

Abbas urged Israel to "halt its aggression so the necessary environment can be created" for restarting talks aimed at reaching agreement on a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. An Abbas adviser says that Rice, in turn, vowed that she would try to persuade the Israelis to "slow down their operations in Gaza, but not stop them," a statement which apparently angered the Palestinian leader. Palestinian sources say that Abbas also asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to negotiate a "cooling down" period in fighting between the Israelis and Hamas' Islamic militants who seized control of Gaza from Abbas' militia last summer.

But with Israel determined to eliminate the missile threat to its southern civilian population centers, the best chance for averting a bloody showdown in Gaza may be a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, mediated either by Egypt, or by Abbas himself, who proposed Monday to take on that role. But even truce efforts may only delay the inevitable clash.

A leading Hamas politician in Gaza told TIME that his movement would accept a cease-fire if Israel stopped its air strikes and opened the border crossings into Gaza. He also pressed Israel to agree to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the freedom of Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped in June 2006. Israel has, until now, refused to discuss a truce with Hamas, which it (together with the U.S. and European Union) considers a terrorist organization. And, facing international sanctions designed to oust it from power, Hamas has shown no inclination to halt rockets being fired into southern Israel from territory under its control.

Israeli military officers say it is only a matter of time before one of the Russian-made Grad rockets, which have a range of 12 miles, lands in an Ashkelon schoolyard or an apartment building, causing heavy casualties. One Israeli military intelligence source estimated that Hamas has managed to smuggle several hundred of these rockets into Gaza. The Israelis also believe that Hamas may have acquired surface-to-air missiles, although none have yet been fired at the Israeli aircraft that control Gaza's skies.

Last weekend's ground assault into Gaza, which involved over 1,000 troops and 100 armored vehicles, backed by helicopter gunships, jet-fighters and drones, has encouraged some military planners to think that an even bigger offensive into the enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians could be mounted without causing unacceptable casualty levels. One senior officer told TIME that "Operation Warm Winter" succeeded in cordoning off more than 40,000 people inside Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp, without encountering heavy resistance from Hamas and other militant groups. The Israelis say they arrested more than 30 militants in Jabaliya, and found large arms caches.

Although Israel appears to have chosen to withdraw its troops from Gaza because of Rice's visit, Hamas spun the Israeli pullout as "a victory" in what they now call the "Five Day War." The next war is sure to last longer, and its main casualty will be the U.S.-sponsored peace initiative.

— With reporting from Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem