Middle East Violence Adds to Obama's List of International Challenges

Add Middle East violence to a recession and two wars as problems that will face Barack Obama on day one of his presidency.

Over the weekend, Israel launched its deadliest airstrikes ever against the militant Palestinian group Hamas inside the Gaza Strip, a 25-mile-long powder keg along the Mediterranean Sea that is controlled by Hamas and symbolizes the Middle East's most pressing problem: the lack of a Palestinian homeland. By late Sunday, nearly 300 were dead -- most of them Hamas security forces -- and more than 800 wounded, the Gaza Health Ministry said.

The attacks by Israel were in response to Hamas' repeated violations of a six-month cease-fire by sending rockets into southern Israel and smuggling weapons through tunnels under the border wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Israel's response was a matter of time.

It came 13 months after the Annapolis, Md., peace conference that President Bush hoped would lead to a historic agreement brokered by the United States and monitored by moderate Arab states. Instead, the new spate of violence "will empower every anti-Israel, anti-U.S. and extremist movement in the Middle East and the Islamic world," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Enter Obama, who in 22 days will walk into the Oval Office and assume the mantle of Middle East peacemaker played with little success by U.S. presidents for decades. Already focused on ending the U.S. recession, moving troops out of Iraq and sending more into Afghanistan, Obama now must add the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict to his early agenda.

"He's going to inherit a much worse situation than we've seen between Israelis and Palestinians over the past year," said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Things could get a lot worse in the next three weeks."

For now, questions surround the conflict. Israel says it does not want to reoccupy Gaza or wipe out Hamas, yet it amassed tanks and artillery at the border and approved calling up reservists for a possible ground invasion.

Hamas, with 20,000 fighters, has fired missiles deeper than ever into Israel, near the town of Ashdod. Egypt, faced with dozens of fleeing Palestinians, sent hundreds of border guards to reseal the southern border. Syria broke off indirect peace talks with Israel. Protesters took to the streets from Beirut to Paris to protest Israel's attacks.

In Gaza and southern Israel, enraged citizens backed their respective governments and called for more, not less, violence.

Abdullatif el-Haj, acting director-general of the European Gaza Hospital near Khan Younis, said the intensive-care unit was over capacity by Sunday morning. Palestinians "want revenge," he said. "They are waiting for explosions on buses. ... They are waiting for rockets to drop over Israeli civilians, so they can taste what Gazans now are tasting."

In Israel, retired police officer Yossef Cohen spent part of Sunday responding to multiple rocket alerts in the city of Ashkelon and evacuating his disabled wife to a fortified room in their apartment. "Each day is like Russian roulette. ... The danger is always there," he said. "They should get their punishment, just as we have suffered."

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