JANUARY 4 2009 08:58h
Gaza rocket attacks have killed four Israelis.
Here are some questions and answers about the conflict:
Q - Where do things stand now?
A - Columns of Israeli tanks backed by helicopters crossed the boundary fence from at least four points into the Gaza Strip under darkness.
Israeli military affairs commentators said troops were unlikely to move into Gaza City, the largest population centre in the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians, and would focus instead on destroying Hamas command posts and targeting the Islamist group's commanders and fighters. "The aim is to boost Israel's deterrence before any ceasefire deal," one said.
Q - How long will the operation last?
A - The army said the ground sweep would take "many long days" and was aimed at seizing areas used by Hamas to launch cross-border rocket attacks. Pressure on Israel to cease fire is likely to grow as casualties mount. Some international leaders have called for a truce and anti-Israel protests have erupted across the Middle East and Europe in response to the death of civilians in the Gaza Strip. In Israel, strong public support for the operation could erode if large numbers of Israeli soldiers are killed and rocket fire intensifies. Israel holds a national election on Feb. 10.
Q - What's life like in Gaza?
A - There is food, but not enough, and electricity, but intermittent. There is no shortage of water and the city is not totally blacked out at night. Hospitals do not have enough beds or medicine to cope with the wounded. Palestinians cannot leave unless Israel permits them to, unless they risk the perilous trip through some tunnel to Egypt.
Q - How would Hamas try to beat back Israeli ground forces.
A - The Islamist group is believed to have planted landmines and booby-traps across the Gaza Strip for use against armour and infantry, and it commands at least 25,000 trained fighters. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth and Israel could face tough urban warfare in a showdown with Hamas forces who know their way around the maze of streets.
Israel apparently tried to detonate some of the landmines by firing artillery into open ground along routes tanks and infantry took into the Gaza Strip. The barrage also created a smokescreen that may have been used as cover by advanced units.
Q - Is a truce still possible?
A - The United Nations, United States, European Union, Arab League, Russia and Turkey all urge a ceasefire. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington was working for a durable truce and insisted that Hamas must stop firing rockets first. EU foreign ministers were due to start a peace mission on Monday and French President Nicolas Sarkozy was scheduled to go to Jerusalem.
Israel had rejected earlier calls for an immediate ceasefire, but its leaders are divided on what course to take following the ground offensive. Some say a formal ceasefire backed by the U.N and major powers would be best. Others say it would only tie Israel's hands should rocket fire continue. They believe the best course is to cease fire unilaterally but only when Israel is convinced that Hamas has got the message: start up again and we will hit you again.