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Analysis: What is Israel's end game in Gaza?

TEL AVIV – As Israel vows a war "to the bitter end" against Hamas, the surge in violence has spurred worries about another regional Mideast war as well as speculation about Israel's ultimate aim with its broad assault on targets inside the Gaza Strip.

On the former question, there's not a chance. Who would fight it?

Apart from the usual suspects -- Iran, Syria and their Lebanese proxies, Hezbollah -- most Arab leaders are probably delighted that Israel is taking apart Hamas fighting ability. Most pleased, privately, is the West Bank Palestinian leadership of Fatah, which saw Hamas obliterate its own power structure in Gaza in a few violent days 18 months ago.

VIDEO: Israel widens fight in Gaza

This is payback time, courtesy of Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other Fatah leaders, after calling for an urgent cease-fire, blame Hamas for provoking Israel by its refusal to continue the six-month truce, and its repeated rocket attacks into Israel.

Just as pleased is Egypt, which fears that its own fundamentalist Muslims will be encouraged by Hamas' success in Gaza. A bloody nose for Hamas fits Egypt's needs perfectly. Just as Palestinian police in the West Bank opened fire on pro-Hamas protestors on Sunday, so did Egyptian police on their border with Gaza.

Likewise, pro-Hamas demonstrations in Arab capitals like Amman and Baghdad will not force any military moves against Israel by their governments. And Iran, apart from its ability to support and encourage Hezbollah and Hamas, is a thousand miles away. The most Syria can do is to call off its indirect peace talks with Israel, which it has already done.

How the fighting could spread

So there are only two ways the fighting could spread. One way is if Hezbollah, or Palestinian groups, in southern Lebanon open a second front by firing rockets into Israel.

But Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's lukewarm call to arms did not include his own men. He said, "I join my voice to the voices of other Palestinian leaderships that have called for a third intifada in Palestine." In other words – you guys do it.

And although there have been some protests at home, Israeli Arabs, as well as Palestinians in the West Bank, have limited themselves to highly-publicized but small-scale protests that include throwing stones at soldiers, but nothing worse.

If Israeli soldiers kill Israeli Arabs, that could provoke a much wider revolt. But because of the killing in October 2000 of Israeli Arabs by soldiers, which led to two months of violence by Israeli Arabs, Israeli soldiers today do not use live bullets in confrontations with their own citizens. 

SLIDESHOW: Violence in Gaza

So what will Israel do now?
Israel's attack is vastly different from its failed attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006.

The leaders then were two civilians, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who had minimal military experience, and an air force leader as chief of staff.

They raised the bar incrementally, sending ground troops in always a step behind Israel's needs, according to the inquiry commission that studied Israel's failings after the war. Today, alongside the same chastened and more experienced Olmert are war legends Ehud Barak, who is now the defense minister, and Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of staff.

Their modus operandi is overwhelming force, applied at the right time in the right places. All the troops and tanks Israel needs for a ground invasion are already in place, yards from Gaza.

Moreover, Israel has much better intelligence than it had in southern Lebanon. Gaza is closer to home, in fact in some senses, it is home; and no doubt Fatah men in Gaza are helping Israel's own secret services identify the targets.

Israel says it is ready for a ground invasion, but that needn't be one sweeping attack. It could be quick forays and pullbacks. It could be an armored division demolishing one area at a time.

However, Hamas remains strong. It has up to 20,000 well-trained and well-armed fighters who have been preparing to repel an Israeli ground assault for a year. It still has plenty of anti-tank rockets, secret tunnels and booby-traps. The price could be high on both sides.

Israel's end game?

But Israel's goals are not clear. Olmert said the aim is to restore a cease-fire on terms Israel considers favorable. Israel knows it can't destroy Hamas completely, or even its ability to fire rockets. But Israel does want to make the price so high that Hamas will not want to fire any more rockets.

The model is the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who after Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon -- after he kidnapped two Israeli soldiers -- said if he had known the reaction from Israel, he would have never kidnapped the soldiers. And in the Israeli parliament on Monday, Barak declared that this is a "war to the bitter end against Hamas."

Essentially, Israel wants to destroy as much as possible of Hamas military infrastructure, teach Hamas the same lesson, and reach a cease-fire that will last.

But Hamas still has an arsenal of weapons, including thousands of rockets, suicide bombers ready to attack, and the support of its people in Gaza. Israel will overwhelm Hamas, but could yet suffer some nasty surprises.

The only other way the fighting could end soon is the way it has in the past: An Israeli rocket hits a school or an apartment building, killing a hundred people. Then Israel will not be able to withstand international pressure to call off the attack.