The Israel-Hamas war launched Saturday, Dec. 27, was the first Middle East conflict in 60 years in which the United States played no role.

Israel has not formally spelled out the practical targets of its Gaza operation, beyond "reshaping the security situation in southern Israel to allow the population to live normal lives free of missile terror." Some ministers have sworn to smash Hamas and terminate its rule of Gaza . But a prime, unspoken strategic goal is undoubtedly to take the Middle East extremists down a peg or two or more – terminally, if possible - before the new US president starts dealing with them.

Thus a joke is  going around Washington that the Obama gang is thankful Israel went ahead before he took over.

However, once Israeli tanks and boots hit the ground in the Gaza Strip, there is no guarantee that the conflict will wind up any time soon. Israeli officials are all talking about a long haul.

The Bush administration at least, is expected to veto any UN Security Council resolution that condemns Israel and demands a halt to its military operations.

The Israeli offensive has a broader, long term aspect, say  Washington insiders: It is a counterattack against Iran , Syria and their bellicose pretensions to regional domination at the head of a flock of non-state extremist organizations by exploiting the explosive Palestinian issue to destabilize and delegitimize the mainstream Arab governments – especially those committed to a negotiated peace with Israel.

By parading its military might, Israel aims to show the pretenders up as useless when it comes to saving one of their own. Tehran may have trained Hamas commanders, supplied its rockets for shooting at Israel , egged it on to challenge "the Zionist entity" - and even sent an al Qods general to design its Gaza bunkers - but when it comes to rescuing Hamas from doom at Israel 's hands, the Islamic Republic is a paper tiger.

Without a proven long-reaching military arm, Tehran would forfeit its claim to be the preeminent regional power and lose its case for being treated in this capacity by the Obama administration as the precondition for their dialogue.

Similarly, Syria and its president Bashar Assad, who poses as the great protector of the Palestinian Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical non-state terrorist groups and hosts their commands in Damascus , will lose face and share Iran 's fate as a second-rater.

It is too soon to tell how the Israeli campaign, which still faces several stages, will turn out, but there is clearly  a rift developing in the Arab-Muslim camp.

Hamas, which started out as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement, has won a Palestinian election and acquired a sovereign territory. He fears that the appetite of the parent movement, the outlawed Brotherhood, will be whetted by the Hamas model and it may try by covert means to emulate it. The Egyptian president would prefer to see Hamas crushed by Israel before the Brotherhood gets the idea of seizing a slice of Egyptian territory and ruling it with the help of an Islamic militia of its own.

And both Egypt and Saudi Arabia want the Palestinian Authority  under the wing of its chairman Mahmoud Abbas,  restored to power in the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank.

Ranged on the opposite side are Syria, Qatar and Iran , who are determined to maintain Hamas' dominance in the Palestinian movement.

Israel's Gaza operation showed at least some defects, and Hamas no doubt has developed a  plan for withstanding an Israeli invasion by developing a guerrilla campaign.

One of the most serious casualties of Israel 's offensive against Hamas so far however , is the rupture between America 's two foremost military Middle East allies, Turkey and Israel.

The ability by Hamas’ to launch missiles into Israeli territory will go on for a while. The Israelis next must decide whether they will be drawn into a brutal house-to-house operation in one of the most densely populated parts of the world.

After the Israeli operation in Gaza, the Palestinian territories however, will more or less remain politically, territorially, economically and militarily divided between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, making the formation of a viable Palestinian state virtually impossible. And seen from a today's vantage point,  Hamas will still be a force in Gaza; the group has extensive social networks in the region and maintains substantial popular support in Gaza. Furthermore, Hamas’ rival Fatah is severely internally divided and lacks the ability to impose its influence in Gaza, regardless of how strong or weak Hamas is.

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