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What’s behind the Israeli offensive at Gaza

For the fifth consecutive day Israeli forces Saturday bombarded the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip from land, sea and air, causing mounting casualties and drawing volleys of rockets fired by militants at Israel.

Here’s an explanation of what's behind the Gaza offensive

Q: How did the current conflict in Gaza begin?

A: Israel blamed the militant Islamist group Hamas for the kidnapping and killing last month of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, though Hamas did not claim responsibility. That led to an Israeli crackdown there on the group and the arrest of hundreds of suspected operatives. In response, militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets at Israel, which escalated its air strikes on selected militant targets. After six Hamas militants were killed in an explosion in a tunnel last Monday, the group fired a heavy barrage of rockets at Israel, which responded with the current offensive.

Q: What are Israel's aims?

A: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the aim of campaign is to strike a heavy blow against Hamas and compel it to stop the rocket fire at Israel. He is currently weighing a possible ground push into Gaza, although he is said to be wary of getting Israeli troops bogged down in a costly ground war.

Q: What does Hamas want?

A: Hamas leaders have set conditions for a cease-fire, saying they want a lifting of Israeli and Egyptian border restrictions imposed on Gaza, the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, and the freeing of prisoners rearrested by Israel in its West Bank crackdown last month. The prisoners were released in a 2012 exchange with Hamas for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who had been held captive by the group.

Q: What is the reason for the lopsided casualty figures, with more than 100 Palestinians dead and not one Israeli killed in the first five days of fighting?

A: The Israeli military says it has dropped more than 2,000 tons of munitions on targets in the Gaza Strip, a densely populated area where residents have no bomb shelters or early warning systems alerting them to take cover. More than 70 homes of suspected militants have been directly attacked, killing and wounding relatives and neighbors.

In Israel, air-raid sirens alert people to take cover in shelters and reinforced safe-rooms, and Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system has intercepted many incoming rockets aimed at population centers. Many other rockets have landed harmlessly in open areas.

Q: Are homes in Gaza a legitimate target?

A: Human rights groups say targeting residential houses is a violation of international law, especially when the casualties are innocent civilians. The Israeli army says the buildings were used by militants to direct their operations, and are therefore legitimate military targets, and that in some instances warnings are given to occupants to vacate before a house is struck.

Q: How far have the rockets from Gaza reached in Israel?

A: Some have landed in areas south of the northern port city of Haifa, some 80 miles north of Gaza. Others have reached Tel Aviv and areas around Jerusalem.

Q: Why does the fighting continue?

A: So far there has been no effective mediator to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The United States has offered to broker a truce, but it has no contact with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization. Secretary of State John Kerry has communicated with Egypt, Qatar and other regional players to help mediate an end to the fighting, so far without success. Netanyahu has pledged to continue the Israeli offensive until he secures a halt to the rocket fire on Israel. Hamas says it will not agree to a truce unless its conditions are met.

Q: What’s the international reaction?

A: President Obama has said Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks, but he has cautioned against further escalation and called on all sides to protect civilian lives. The U.S.

has offered to broker a new cease-fire agreement based on one reached in 2012 after a similar Israeli offensive. Egypt has condemned the Israeli attacks and said it has held intensive contacts to end the fighting, but without success. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has criticized both Israel for its bombing of Gaza homes and Hamas for firing rockets into Israel. He has called on the United Nations Security Council to order an immediate truce.