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Israel's decisive offensive chases security, chills peace
Updated: 2008-12-29 14:51

JERUSALEM -- Whether in words or in deeds, Israel has manifested a strong determination during the weekend to restore quiet to its southern land once and away this time.

Yet its heated airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, making Saturday the bloodiest single day on this volatile land in decades, cast another chill over the already frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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Following two waves of intensive bombardments around Saturday noon against dozens of Hamas' security facilities, the Israeli air force has carried out tens of small-scale airborne assaults till Sunday evening. The total death doll has exceeded 280, and is likely to rise further in view of the some one thousand injuries.

This is not the end, but rather just the beginning, said Israeli officials and officers.

At Sunday's cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert predicted that the situation around Gaza "is liable to continue for some time, perhaps more than can be foreseen at the present time."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated that Israel is "at the start of an operation that will be neither short nor easy."

Israel's Gaza offensive reportedly has three objectives: giving Hamas a forceful blow, fundamentally changing the situation in Gaza and ending the rocket attacks against Israeli citizens.

As Hamas remains in functioning shape and southern Israel is still pummeled by rockets, the Israeli army admitted that it is still too early to declare victory.

Israel used to conduct several military operations in the coastal strip with an aim to end the rocket attacks, but all failed eventually. This time, Israeli officials are poised with a strong resolve to make a difference through a decisive maneuver.

The operation, dubbed Cast Lead, will continue with full force until calm is restored to southern Israel, Major-General Amos Gilad, head of the Diplomatic-Military Bureau of the Defense Ministry told local media.

He noted that as retaliatory barrage from Gaza was less intensive than expected, Hamas' response is more like an attempt to "assert that it still exists."

"Israel has all the time, determination and means necessary in order to restore daily routine, security and tranquility to the residents of the south of the country," Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel told a press briefing.

On the ground, the Israeli army has been amassing infantry troops and armored units along the Gaza border shortly after the midday offensive on Saturday, and artillery batteries were also deployed there on Sunday, apparently in preparations for a possible ground incursion, which Barak said would be carried out if necessary.

In another sign of an impending escalation, the cabinet on Sunday morning endorsed an army request to call up 6,500 reservists to duty, who would provide aid for border communities and help the army complete the preparations.

While the Gaza front is heated with blasts and flames, the peace front between the Jewish state and its neighbors was hit by a cold snap.

Although it is still unknown how the deadly raids would affect the development of the internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah, which Israel said was a main factor hampering the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks, what is apparently likely is that they would intensify the anti-Israeli sentiments among the Arabs.

Thousands of Arabs went on streets in protest in many Israeli and Palestinian cities, and similar demonstrations were seen in many other countries.

As Barak said that "now is the time for battle," Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called for the third Intifada, or uprising. Should another full-scale clash break out between Israel and the Palestinians, its impact on the peace process would be anything but small.

Following the second Intifada, it took seven years for the two sides to resume the peace talks.

Toll would also be taken on the relations between the Jewish state and the whole Arab world. Arab countries have voiced most vehement condemnation over Israel's bloody campaign.

Israel's northern neighbor Syria, which began indirect peace talks with Israel via Turkey earlier this year, has announced to suspend the dialogue in protest.

On the Israeli side, political figures have reportedly expressed concern that the February 10 general election could be postponed if the operation lasts for an extended period, citing a precedent in 1973 when the Yom Kippur War led to a two-month delay of the parliamentary election.

In such a scenario, the Jewish state, which has been in a transitional status for over three months, would stay longer in a political turmoil, which both the Palestinians and the United States, Israel's staunch ally, said was to blame for the impasse on the road to peace.