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Israel launched its military offensive against Gaza on 14 November, marking the latest eruption in a conflict with Palestinian militants which has raged between the two sides for years. The latest violence has left dozens of people dead, many of them civilians, and shows no sign of ending soon.

Here is a guide to what has happened so far and how the situation may evolve.

How did this start?

Israel’s offensive on Gaza began with an air strike that killed the commander of Hamas’s military wing, Ahmed Jabari, whom it accused of responsibility for “all terrorist activities against Israel from Gaza” over the past decade.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) subsequently announced the start of Operation Pillar of Defence, which it said was intended to protect Israeli civilians from rockets and mortars fired by militants in Gaza, as well as cripple Hamas’s capability to launch attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the operation was launched because he could no longer “accept a situation in which Israeli citizens are threatened by the terror of rockets”.

Israeli air strikes on what it said were rocket-storage sites and on Hamas facilities, and a surge in Palestinian rocket-fire into Israel, ensued.

Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007, said Jabari’s assassination had “opened the gates of hell”.

Although Jabari’s killing signalled the start of Israel’s offensive, it was preceded by spates of deadly cross-border violence which saw Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas’s Qassam Brigades, firing hundreds of rockets into southern Israel and the Israeli military shelling Gaza and carrying out air strikes.

Some observers have noted that the offensive was launched only nine weeks before parliamentary elections in Israel. Others have alleged that Operation Pillar of Defence is intended to undermine the Palestinian plan to request non-member observer state status at the UN later in November. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has rejected the suggestion that he and Mr Netanyahu have an interest in going to war. And prior to the offensive, polls already suggested Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Beitenu alliance would come out top in the forthcoming elections.

What is the historical background to the crisis?

The shape of the Gaza Strip was defined by the armistice line following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-9. Some 1.1 million of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza are registered as refugees.

Egypt controlled the Strip between 1948 and 1967, when Israel captured it during the Six Day War. In 2005, Israel pulled its troops and settlers out. Israel considered that the end of the occupation, but it still exercises control over most of Gaza’s land borders, territorial waters and airspace. Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border.

For the last decade, the people of Gaza have suffered severe socio-economic hardship. Eighty per cent of the population is dependant on international assistance. Israel’s blockade, which was tightened with Egypt’s co-operation in 2007 to weaken Hamas after it came to power and to end rocket attacks, has resulted in what the UN describes as “the impoverishment and de-development of a highly-skilled and well-educated society”.

In 2010, Israel partially eased the blockade, but restrictions on imports and exports continue to hamper recovery and reconstruction. The UN has described the blockade as “collective punishment”, while a UN report found the naval blockade was legal.

The blockade and the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been cited by militants in Gaza as reasons for their continued attacks on Israel since the 2005 withdrawal. Despite carrying out scores of air strikes across Gaza, Israel has failed to halt rocket attacks. This led the Israeli military to launch of a major ground offensive in December 2008. Operation Cast Lead dealt a serious blow to the capability of Gaza’s militant groups – and also destroyed much of the territory’s civilian infrastructure – but they gradually recovered and rocket-fire resumed.

Though smaller groups were behind the majority of the attacks between January 2009 and October 2012, Hamas’ armed wing was also involved. Israel has said it holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the territory.

What do both sides want?

The Israeli government has said Operation Pillar of Defence has two main goals – to protect Israeli civilians and “cripple the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza”. Mr Netanyahu has insisted that he is not seeking to topple Hamas.

On 18 November, the prime minister announced that the IDF had attacked more than 1,000 “terrorist targets” and had achieved “significant hits on weapons aimed at Israeli citizens, as well as on those who use the weapons and those who dispatch them”. Israel has said it is doing its utmost to avoid civilian casualties, although more than half of those killed in Gaza have been women and children, according to Hamas officials.

Israeli military sources say most of the Iranian-made Fajr-5 and M75 medium-range missiles which had been in the possession of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group were destroyed during the first few hours of the offensive. However, some have landed near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Israel has struggled to contain shorter-range rockets.

At the start of the offensive, Hamas’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad insisted it was not the aggressor and did not want to see the violence escalate. “We still say that we are the victims of the Occupation and we are the target,” he said. But Mr Hamad also argued that Hamas had a right to defend its people and would respond to Israeli attacks, warning: “If Gaza is not safe, your towns will not be safe also.”

Could there be an Israeli ground offensive?

Mr Netanyahu has said that Israel is “prepared for a significant expansion of the operation” and refused to rule out a ground offensive, while Mr Barak has said the Israeli military will “do everything that is necessary to achieve peace and quiet”. Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, told the BBC on 20 November: “We want the diplomatic efforts to succeed. We do not want a ground incursion. However, if the objectives of this operation will not be reached by talks, we will go into Gaza.”

The Israeli government has approved the calling up of 75,000 army reservists in apparent preparation for a ground offensive. Some 31,000 have already been summoned. Several infantry and armoured brigades have already been deployed in the Negev desert, near Gaza. Veteran Israeli commanders say about 30,000 troops reportedly took part in the 2006 Lebanon war and 20,000 in Operation Cast Lead – Israel’s offensive against Gaza in 2008-09.

Analysts say Israeli commanders believe the build-up will help deter Hamas, making it clear Israel’s intentions are serious, but also making it possible to launch an offensive were Hamas to refuse a ceasefire.

Since the end of Operation Cast Lead, Hamas’s military wing has been preparing for another ground offensive. It is believed to have about 10,000 active fighters and 20,000 in reserve. The group has also built bunkers, improved its military technology and acquired more sophisticated and powerful weapons. Although the Qassam Brigades lost its leader, its command and control capability is still functioning.

How has the international community responded?

US President Barack Obama said on 18 November that it was “preferable” that Israel did not launch a ground offensive on Gaza, but reiterated that he was “fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles” despite mounting Palestinian civilian casualties. Mr Obama said rockets fired into Israel by Hamas had been the “precipitating event” in the conflict and had to be stopped. The US, he added, had been “actively working with all the parties in the region” to bring about a de-escalation of violence.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Hamas bore “principal responsibility” for the current conflict but warned that a ground invasion would “lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy they have in this situation”.

On 16 November, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said she was deeply concerned at the violence and deplored the loss of civilian lives. She said the rocket attacks were “totally unacceptable and must stop”, but also said Israel had to ensure that its response was “proportionate”.

However, there has been strong condemnation of Israel’s actions from long-time Western allies in the region, notably Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and Qatar. Egypt’s President, Mohammed Mursi, said he would “not leave Gaza on its own”, condemning what he called Israel’s “blatant aggression against humanity”. His Prime Minister, Hisham Qandil, travelled to Gaza on 16 November, where he pledged to work for a truce “to stop the aggression”.

On 18 November, Arab foreign ministers gave their backing to the Egyptian peace effort and agreed to send a delegation to Gaza headed by the Arab League’s Secretary General, Nabil al-Arabi. The ministers condemned what they described as Israeli “aggression” and expressed “complete discontent” with the UN Security Council’s lack of action.

What are the prospects for a ceasefire?

International pressure on both the Israeli government and Hamas leaders to agree a ceasefire is mounting. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is in the region to boost efforts led by Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi and Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi.

Both Israeli and Hamas delegations have travelled to Cairo to discuss the conditions of any truce with Egyptian officials.

On 19 November, Israeli officials told the BBC that the government had made the following demands: no hostile fire of any kind to come from Gaza into Israel, including smalls arms fire at Israeli troops near the border; Hamas fighters must be stopped from travelling to the Sinai to carry out attacks against Israel at the Egypt-Israel border; Hamas must not be able to rearm; a ceasefire must not simple be a “time-out” for Hamas, but an extended period of quiet for southern Israel.

A senior Israeli official close to Mr Netanyahu told the BBC on 20 November that the prime minister had made it clear he wanted to give time for the negotiations being held in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, to succeed, and so the potential ground offensive had been put on hold. But the official warned Israel would not give unlimited time – indicating there would need to be a breakthrough in the talks by 22 November.

On 19 November, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal told a news conference in Cairo that the movement would abide by a ceasefire if Israel stopped its “thuggery” and “aggression”, but insisted that the Israeli blockade of Gaza also had to end as part of any deal. Privately, one senior Hamas official said it was only seeking a “commitment” to ending the blockade. Hamas is also understood to be seeking guarantees that Israel will stop assassinating senior militants.

What does this mean for the Middle East peace process?

Two decades of on-off negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank has failed to produce a permanent settlement. The latest round of direct negotiations broke down in 2010. Hamas has not been part of any peace talks with Israel. The group does not recognise Israel’s right to exist and opposes the 1993 Oslo Accords, signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Even before the Israeli offensive on Gaza began, the two sides had rarely appeared further apart and the conflict more intractable. In January, several months of indirect “proximity talks” ended without any progress. Palestinian negotiators insist that the building of Jewish settlements on occupied land must stop before they agree to resume direct talks. Their Israeli counterparts say there can be no preconditions.

The Israeli and US governments have also been angered by PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s plan to submit on 29 November a request to the UN General Assembly for Palestine to become a “non-member observer state”. The Palestinians argue that this would strengthen their hand in peace talks. Israel and the US say the only way to achieve an independent state is through direct negotiations.

On 18 November, Mr Obama said if the situation in Gaza worsened, “the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future”.

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