On September 12, 2005, the last Israeli soldiers withdrew from the Gaza Strip, after 38 years of occupation. The pullout was a unilateral decision by the state of Israel. But three years later, Israel launched its most violent offensive ever against the Palestinian territory with the aim of putting an end to rocket attacks and dealing a severe blow to Hamas. Ever since the Israeli pullout, Hamas had been gaining in strength. First of all, on the political front, with the movement’s surprise election victory in the 2006 legislative elections. International aid was suspended and factional fighting erupted between Hamas militants and supporters of president Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction.
In June 2007, Hamas took control of Gaza after months of sporadic but violent combat. Abbas dissolved the unity government, declaring a state of emergency. Israel hardened its position, and launched a series of military operations on the Strip – with the failed aim, once again, of ending the rocket attacks on its territory. But Hamas continued to grow in strength, with military supplies entering via its border with Egypt. And so the rocket attacks continued, as Hamas built up its arsenal, digging tunnels to pass the weapons through, training its men and planting landmines. An uncomfortable predicament for Egypt – which had, effectively, allowed Hamas to build hundreds of tunnels under the 14 kilometres-long border with Gaza. The Gaza Strip was turning into a nightmare for Egypt. In January 2008, hungry Gazans subject to a total blockade tried to cross the border to Egypt in search of food and supplies. The finger of blame was pointed at Cairo for refusing to open its Rafah border with Gaza. In the end, the blockade did not succeed in defeating Hamas. That goal appears closer than ever with this latest offensive. But Israel is taking big military and diplomatic risks.