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."

'Situation Was Unbearable'

In Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, the suffering mounted Sunday. Israel's intense bombings -- about 300 airstrikes since midday Saturday -- wreaked unprecedented destruction and reduced entire buildings to rubble.

Warplanes struck dozens of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, cutting off a lifeline that had supplied Hamas with weapons and Gaza with commercial goods. The influx of goods had helped Hamas defy an 18-month blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt and was key to propping up the Hamas-led government. The U.S. State Department lists Hamas as a terrorist group.

Israel's military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, says Hamas' ability to fire rockets was reduced by 50 percent; the number fired at Israel dropped from more than 130 Saturday to just more than 20 Sunday.

Gaza's nine hospitals were overwhelmed. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which keeps researchers at all hospitals, said that among the dead were 20 children younger than 16 and nine women.

In Jerusalem, Israel's Cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reserve soldiers, suggesting that a ground offensive could be next. Israel has doubled the number of troops on the Gaza border since Saturday and deployed an artillery battery.

Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of military occupation, Israeli forces repeatedly have returned to the territory to hunt militants. Israel has shied away from retaking the entire strip, for fear of getting bogged down in urban warfare.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on NBC's Meet the Press that Israel has no intention of occupying Gaza. Rather, she said, it wants to halt the rocket attacks by Hamas. "They used the field of truce in order to rearm themselves," she said. "They smuggled weapons. They built a small army in (the) Gaza Strip. So the situation was unbearable."

Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations says political pressure has been building since June for a military response to the Hamas rocket attacks, which did not completely stop during the six-month truce.

"It was almost inevitable that the Israelis would use the military option," he said. "The Israeli government, like all governments, has to protect its citizens. To do otherwise would have created a major political crisis."

Robert Malley, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, says the operation "allows Israel to degrade Hamas' military position, establish a level of deterrence and try to halt the rocket fire." On the other hand, he says, "It allows Hamas to mobilize Palestinian and Arab public opinion on its behalf, prove that it is not fearful of confrontation and put itself in a position to negotiate a truce on better terms."

A Hamas leader in exile, Osama Hamdan, said the movement would not relent. "We have one alternative, which is to be steadfast and resist, and then we will be victorious," Hamdan said in Beirut.

New President, Same Policy?

The Israeli offensive has more to do with the end of the ceasefire than politics, but it comes at an opportune time.

Israeli elections are set for Feb. 10, with Livni opposing former president Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party. The military incursion could influence the vote in either direction.

"This is largely their way of pushing people to the right to galvanize more and more votes," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst and former Palestinian Authority adviser and negotiator. "They're trying to radicalize the Israeli street."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads a rival government to Hamas in the West Bank, also has called for elections. Neither he nor embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert -- Bush's partners in recent peace efforts -- are running. And Bush himself has only three weeks left in office.

But for all the political change, U.S. policy isn't likely to veer very far. Obama, like Bush, is staunchly pro-Israel and has been resolute in citing Israel's right to self-defense. He has stocked his foreign policy team with friends of Israel, led by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as his choice for secretary of State.

Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, has been silent on the latest Middle East conflagration. He called Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday and planned to speak late Sunday with Clinton and his choice for national security adviser, retired Marine general James Jones.

"He's closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza," says Brooke Anderson, his chief national security spokesperson.

In the past, Obama has defended Israel's right to retaliate, including against Hezbollah in Lebanon two years ago. Visiting the southern Israeli city of Sderot in July, he said, "I don't think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens."

Obama said it would be "very hard to negotiate" with Hamas because it "does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon, and is deeply influenced by other countries."

That sounds much like Bush's position.

Over the weekend, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said it was "completely unacceptable" for Hamas to launch attacks on Israel.

"These people are nothing but thugs," Johndroe said in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is resting at his ranch. "They need to stop."

Amjad Atallah, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the non-partisan New America Foundation, said the Israelis attacked during a time of transition in Washington "with the hope of pre-empting any quick start to a new policy" by Obama.

That, Buttu says, is likely to come true. "Beneath all the hope is a bit of a fear that he's not going to be qualitatively different, particularly with the people he's putting around him," the Palestinian analyst says.

The most likely change from Bush to Obama, analysts say, will be on the level of diplomacy. Obama could appoint a special envoy to the Middle East, a role Obama adviser Dennis Ross filled in the Clinton administration.

During the Bush administration, "what has been sorely lacking is an effective mediator," said Robert Malley, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group and an adviser to Obama during the campaign. "The events merely reinforce ... the need to think hard about our policy toward Gaza and toward Hamas."

"I think this administration is going to be focused on engagement without illusion," said David Makovsky, senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process. "I think the consequences of not engaging could be greater radicalization."

Brenda Gazzar in Jerusalem and wire reports contributed to this report.