Q: What did Israel do on Wednesday?

 

Israel sent in thousands of troops, backed by warplanes and tanks, into Gaza and sent fighter jets screaming over the summer residence of Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, to press Palestinian militants into freeing Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Israeli air strikes knocked out bridges and electricity in much of Gaza, sonic booms rocked Gaza City, and the strip's borders were sealed. It was the first large-scale ground operation in Gaza since Israel withdrew last September.

 

The operation was focused on southern Gaza - the area where Gilad Shalit, 19, is being held. There were no reports of Israeli or Palestinian casualties.

 

Q: Why did it invade?

 

Military officials said the overwhelming show of force was meant to press the Hamas-led government into securing the release of Shalit and to prevent militants from smuggling the soldier into neighbouring Egypt. Shalit, 19, was seized early on Sunday by Hamas-linked militants who infiltrated Israel through a tunnel near the Gaza border.

 

However, the operation also has a deeper goal of pressing Hamas, which controls the Palestinian government, to renounce violence, recognise Israel and halt the daily barrages of homemade rockets fired into Israel.

 

Q: Why target Syria?

 

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's top leader, lives in Syria, and Israel has long called on the Syrian government to rein in militants it is harbouring.

 

Q: How long does Israel intend to stay?

 

Israel says it has no intention of
re-occupying Gaza

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said Israel has no intention of re-occupying Gaza. Military officials say there is no timeline for a pullout, and the length of the military presence will depend on the Palestinian response.

 

Military officials say Israel will quickly withdraw if the soldier is rescued or released safely. But if the situation drags on, Israel is expected to step up the military pressure. This could mean more power outages, an extended troop presence in Gaza, and expanding the operation to other parts of the strip.

 

In the worst-case scenario - militants killing Shalit - Israel has pledged to resume the assassinations of Hamas leaders, both inside Gaza and outside the country. Israel halted the practice after a February 2005 cease-fire. Israeli officials say there is no timeline for pulling out of Gaza.

 

This would likely prompt Hamas to begin sending suicide bombers into Israel. It halted the attacks, which have killed more than 250 Israelis, after the 2005 truce.

 

Q: What has the Palestinian reaction been?

 

Mahmoud Abbas , the Palestinian president  and a moderate, who has been locked in a power struggle with Hamas, has called for the immediate release of the soldier while deploring the incursion as a “crime against humanity.”

 

The Hamas-led government called on Israel to release some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners it is holding in exchange for the soldier. The militants holding the soldier have made similar demands.

 

Q: Will Israel give in?

 

Olmert, the Israeli prime minister,
 has ruled out a prisoner swap 

Olmert has ruled out a prisoner swap and demanded the unconditional release of Shalit. Israel has exchanged prisoners with Lebanon and guerrilla groups based there. But Israel believes that agreeing to a swap with Palestinian groups would set a dangerous precedent. Israelis and Palestinians come into frequent contact with each other, and releasing prisoners would run the risk of inviting more kidnappings.

 

Q: Hamas has sent out mixed signals during the crisis, with some elements looking for a peaceful resolution and others rejecting the Israeli pressure. Why?

 

Hamas is comprised of a political wing and a military wing, along with its exiled leadership in Syria. Political leaders in Gaza have insisted they had no prior knowledge that the military wing was planning Sunday's abduction.

 

While the Gaza-based political leaders, who control the Palestinian government, have an interest in calming tensions so they can remain in power, the hard-line leadership in Syria does not face such concerns. The military wing, which is believed to be holding Shalit, is believed to take its orders from the exiled leaders.