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Why the Sudden Israel-Gaza Escalation?

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I was last in Gaza almost exactly three years ago. I was part of one of the first groups of MPs to enter after Israel's Operation Cast Lead. which left over 1,300 Palestinians dead, the majority of them civilians and 352 of them children. Over 5,000 more were wounded.

Although Israel kept journalists out of Gaza whilst forces were attacking by land and air, few will forget the appalling scenes brought to our screens by the few Al Jazeera and other journalists who were already there. When we got in a couple of weeks after Israel had withdrawn, we saw the scenes of destruction for ourselves; whole villages raised to the ground, homeless people living in tents, burnt out hospitals scarred by shell holes.

Three years on, I had hoped by now to see how much had changed. But I write this near to - but not inside - Gaza. On Friday an Israeli air strike hit a car carrying the leader of the militant Palestinian group, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). Zuhair al-Qaissi and another Palestinians died in the attack. Scores of rockets were fired into southern Israel seriously wounding one person. Seven other Israelis were also hurt by those rockets, or incidents related to them. More Israeli air strikes have left a further 13 Palestinians dead so far and more wounded.

Inside Gaza UN workers are under curfew. We have been advised against entering the strip until the scale of the escalation is clearer. Will tonight bring more attacks both ways and a spiralling of violence or will a kind of calm return? We wait to see if it will be feasible to enter.

So what is going on? Why the sudden escalation?

Increasingly, the message being promoted by Israeli government sources is that there was no alternative; that scores of rockets had been raining down on southern Israel and Israel had to defend itself.

It is true that militants have been firing rockets and mortars into southern Israel. The fact that most of those rockets land in open country does not, of course, make them acceptable and the international community is right to condemn them. But had there been a sudden or serious escalation?

As far as I can tell from here the answer is no. By and large, Hamas themselves have been on ceasefire and QassamCount, a website reporting rocket attacks on Israel, does not appear to have reported an escalation recently. The big surge in rockets has come since Friday - following Israel's targeted assassination of the PRC leader.

It is no surprise of course that the killing of a figure like Zuhair al-Qaissi would spark precisely the response it did, putting even more Israeli civilians at risk, at least in the short term. Why then, did Israel do it? One theory is that the killing of al-Qaissi was unfinished business for the IDF who held him responsible for killings in the Gaza/Sinai/Israel border region last August.

Last August - so why the retaliation now, over six months later? Some reports say the IDF killed him to thwart another such attack soon. If that is the case then provoking a predictable escalation of rocket attacks on southern Israel appears an odd way of preventing killings near the Egyptian border.

For months now, there have been rumours that another Cast Lead is coming - different from before but just as ruthless. Are we seeing the start of that? Is Israel deliberately ratcheting up tit-for-tat tension to give itself the space to go in heavy on Gaza while the world's attention is understandably focussed on Syria?

Was now also judged to be the right time for such an operation help Israel retake the initiative from Palestinians pondering their next move at the UN and edging falteringly towards reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah?

And has Israel judged that, with elections looming in the USA and uncertainty about the future of Egypt's own transition to democracy, now is the time to act?

I hope I'm wrong about all this. No doubt we will see in the coming hours and days. Either way though, the people of both Gaza and Israel deserve better.

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