Q&A: What’s next in the Gaza conflict?

(Reuters) – Israel and Hamas remained locked in a 16-day-old Gaza war on Sunday, ignoring international calls for a ceasefire.

The Palestinian death toll topped 850, including many civilians. Three Israeli civilians, killed by rockets, and 10 soldiers have died.

Here are some questions and answers about the conflict:

Q – Where do things stand now?

A – Israel has sent tanks and infantry deeper into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and continued to pound targets from the air and sea, keeping pressure on the Islamist movement and deepening the misery of the territory’s 1.5 million inhabitants. Israeli commanders said whole Hamas battalions were being wiped out. Hamas said Israeli forces had achieved nothing, pointing to its continuing rocket fire into southern Israel.

On the diplomatic front, both sides have ignored a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. An Israeli defense official is expected to visit Cairo as early as Monday to discuss an Egyptian-European plan to stop the fighting. Israel is demanding a complete halt to Hamas rocket fire, plus regional and international guarantees to prevent Hamas rearming via smuggling tunnels under the Egypt border.

Hamas wants any ceasefire deal to include the ending of Israel’s crippling economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the territory, from which the Jewish state withdrew in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.

Q – How long will the operation last?

A – Israeli media reports quoted an unnamed Israeli commander as saying the military was pressing for the Gaza offensive to continue until the end of the month. A third stage of the campaign would entail a push into the city of Gaza and other urban areas. In Israel, where a national election will be held on February 10, strong public support for the government’s handling of the operation could erode if large numbers of soldiers are killed in street fighting. A stepped-up Israeli offensive would also probably bring stronger international pressure for a ceasefire, and a question mark hangs in Israel over whether there would be any change in Washington’s strong backing for its war against Hamas once Barack Obama is inaugurated as U.S. president on January 20.

Q – What’s life like in Gaza?

A – Emergency services have been stretched to the limit by the carnage from Israeli barrages and ever-encroaching clashes. There is food, but not enough, and much of the city does not have power. Israel has been holding its fire for three hours each afternoon to allow residents to venture outside on rubble-strewn streets to buy food — and bury their dead. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides food and other assistance to 750,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, resumed full distribution on Saturday after receiving Israeli assurances its staff would not be harmed. A U.N. driver was killed on Thursday.

Q – What’s life like in southern Israel?

A – Although they have suffered far fewer casualties than Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have seen their lives disrupted by daily rocket salvoes, accompanied by alarms that have sent them scurrying for shelter with only seconds to spare before impact. But with far fewer rockets fired into southern Israel on Saturday, authorities have reopened some schools in a sign of confidence the Israeli operation was weakening Hamas’s armed wing.

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