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

(Reuters) – Israeli forces pushed deeper into Gaza city Thursday and unleashed their heaviest shelling of its crowded neighborhoods in three weeks of war, stepping up pressure on Hamas as the Islamist group weighed a ceasefire.

The Palestinian death toll topped 1,050, including many civilians. More than 4,000 have been wounded. 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 – Israeli forces are only about a kilometer (half-mile) from the center of Gaza city, pounding the downtown area and suburbs with artillery and tank fire and deepening the misery of its 500,000 residents. Israeli aircraft have kept up their attacks across the Gaza Strip. Targets have included suspected weapons depots in the homes of Hamas militants and smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border. Israeli commanders say hundreds of Hamas fighters have been killed since the offensive began on December 27. Hamas is still fighting back, firing rockets into southern Israel. On the diplomatic front, an Israeli defense official was to meet Egyptian mediators Thursday after Hamas delegates ended talks on an Egyptian truce plan by repeating their demand that Israel withdraw its troops and lift a long-standing blockade on Gaza, which Israel left in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.

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.

Both sides have ignored a U.N. Security Council ceasefire resolution. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told Israel on Thursday Gaza casualties had reached an “unbearable point.”

Q – How long will the operation last?

A- Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday her country would call a halt when it had the assurances it needed for a lasting ceasefire and a solution to the smuggling issue.

Faced with mounting world pressure for a ceasefire, Israel may want to end the fighting before U.S. President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20. So far it has enjoyed solid support from outgoing President George W. Bush.

Hamas must also take account of the civilian suffering in Gaza, where residents are increasingly desperate for a respite.

Q – What’s life like in Gaza?

A – Emergency services have been stretched to the limit by the carnage. Food, drinking water and cooking gas are scarce. Many areas do not have power. Israel has been holding its fire for three hours a day to allow residents to venture outside on rubble-strewn streets to seek supplies — and bury their dead. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides food and other assistance to 750,000 Gazans, put a hold on vehicle movements after its compound came under fire Thursday, but did not suspend aid operations, an UNRWA spokesman said.

Q – What’s life like in southern Israel?

A – Although only three Israeli civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have seen their lives disrupted by daily rocket salvoes, accompanied by alarms that send them scurrying for shelter. But the rocket fire has dwindled as Israel pressed its offensive against Hamas’s armed wing, enabling authorities to reopen some schools in southern Israel Saturday.

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