New phase of conflict exposed in Middle East

It is a moot point whether the Palestinian uprising is over. A new phase of conflict is already taking shape in the Middle East.

Fighting still centres on the Gaza Strip following Israel's withdrawal from the territory, but both sides concur that the West Bank is more likely to be the bigger battleground in years to come.

A truce in February largely cooled the uprising that erupted on Sept. 28, 2000, and the calm helped smooth Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip - a move that Washington hopes will serve to revive peacemaking.

However, fighting in recent days has added to pessimism over ending decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a land beset by war pretty much since history was written down.

Israel pursued an air offensive in Gaza on Wednesday in response to rocket fire from the territory. It also had the aim, as Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz put it, of teaching the new "rules of the game".

For Israel, that means at least the same tacit agreement as with Hizbollah guerrillas on a northern border that has been generally quiet since Israel left southern Lebanon in 2000.

If they fire, they expect fierce air retaliation.

Meanwhile, the Gaza pullout has made it harder for that territory's militants to launch deadly attacks on Israelis by removing from range the 8,500 Jewish settlers and the thousands of soldiers guarding them.

In the meanwhile Hamas vowed it would end rocket fire from Gaza after Israel began its offensive and some other groups have followed suit.

The Palestinian militants' argument is that the first five years of conflict drove Israel out of Gaza settlements.

Next steps are the West Bank - where Israel continues expanding Jewish settlements - and East Jerusalem, areas also occupied by Israel since the 1967 war which Palestinians hope to have for a state. The official aim of Hamas is to go beyond that and destroy Israel completely.

Militants reject disarmament, which Palestinians were meant to start under a "road map" peace plan and Israel sets as a condition for statehood talks. President Mahmoud Abbas shows no sign of disarming them by force, as Israel wants.

"Gaza is the first liberation, then comes the West Bank, then every inch of Palestinian land," stressed top Hamas official Khaled Meshaal as Israel evacuated Gaza settlers.

Israel believes it has had a taste of what may be to come.

Yuval Diskin, head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, has said Israel is also worried about technology for makeshift missiles moving to the West Bank and within range of major Israeli cities.

However, waging war from the West Bank, where Israel has arrested hundreds of suspected militants in recent days, is tougher than from Gaza.

The army has far more control and access in the West Bank, where cities are divided by Israeli roads and settlements, Reuters reports.

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