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Despite the limits on a ground campaign, many in the Israeli military establishment insisted that even the limited goal of deterring Hamas required its soldiers to get at close quarters with the militants as they did on Saturday to kill more of their fighters and disrupt their chain of command. That course of action meant accepting the inevitability of Israeli casualties. Indeed, the Israelis are aware that Hamas has been hoping for a ground operation, in the belief that it offers the militants a chance to fight on a more level playing field than when Israel attacks from the skies, and also because the inevitable Israeli withdrawal will almost certainly be proclaimed as a victory by the Islamists no matter how badly they were bloodied by the invasion.
The dilemma of Olmert and Barak over how to end the campaign is nothing compared with that confronting President Abbas. He is facing a wave of anger sweeping across the West Bank, even within his Fatah organization, over his response to the Gaza attacks. Many Fatah leaders are demanding that Abbas not only break off the largely symbolic peace talks he continues to hold with the Israelis, but also that he end security cooperation between his forces and those of the Israelis. Abbas can't afford to do that, however. Israel's Gaza campaign has actually strengthened Hamas politically, even in the West Bank, while further weakening Abbas. Without his cooperation with Israel, Abbas knows that Hamas could easily take control of the West Bank too. The longer the Israeli offensive continues, the greater the damage to all the Arab moderates the U.S. has been hoping to rally in an alliance against the likes of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah. Knowledge that pummeling by the Israelis will shift more political support from moderates to Hamas is no doubt fueling diplomatic efforts to force a truce.
Hamas leaders say they're ready for a cease-fire, but only if it includes the opening of the border crossings whose closure has kept Gaza in an economic chokehold. That's something neither the Israelis, nor Hamas' Arab and Palestinian enemies, have been keen to allow. The pounding being suffered by Gaza may force the issue, however. One option diplomats may seek would be to have the crossings be controlled by a neutral force. So, the closing days however long they extend of the Israeli campaign are principally about shaping the terms of a truce.
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Ahdod and Jamil Hamad / Bethlehem