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In the Middle East it is a physical law as dependable as gravity: to every action there will be an equal and equally undesirable counter-reaction; sure enough - an IDF anti-terror strike in Gaza has begun the countdown to a fresh wave of terror in the streets of Israel and the territories.

Shattering a relative calm in recent weeks, a large Israeli force of infantry, armor, combat engineers and helicopter gunship air support pushed into southern Gaza's heart of darkness Monday, searching for Hamas militants, bomb laboratories, arms dumps and mortar firing posts.

What transpired was an object lesson in another physical law: in a region bereft of nearly every natural resource but anger, terror remains the ultimate in recycleable commodities.

Army brass were prepared for a tough battle in the Amal neighborhood of Khan Yunis, long a bastion of fundamentalist Islamic militancy and its primary exponent, Hamas. "We knew in advance that the operating conditions in that area would be difficult because of the resistance that we expected, and which indeed occurred," said Brigadier-General Yisrael Ziv, Israeli division commander in the Gaza Strip.

So daunting was the task at hand, in fact, that for more than two years, since the eruption of the Palestinian uprising, Israel's political and military echelons had refrained from touching what one officer called Fortress Hamas, believed by IDF brass to be the primary local source of attacks as diverse as sniper, anti-tank, and mortar fire against settlers and soldiers.

When the Israeli forces did go in, they traded fire with local gunmen, who threw grenades and launched anti-tank weapons. Still, casualties were relatively few. Only when they were preparing to close the operation was the gunship ordered into active support, with deadly results.

"There was a fairly large group of terrorists there, that fired on our troops and threw grenades at them at the time that the force was wrapping up there, and the helicopter then aimed and fired at this armed group, and this was even documented by filming from a remotely piloted drone," Ziv said later.

Instead of allowing the raid to conclude, however, the copter fire touched off a local conflagration, killing more than a dozen Palestinians and injuring many more. Locals said that a large number of residents had just left hiding places, believing the raid to be over, when the copter-launched missile hit the crowd.

But the ordeal had only begun. When the injured were evacuated to the local Khan Yunis hospital, they became witnesses to the next lurch of the macabre spiral. Palestinian gunners marked the departure of the Israeli force by firing three mortar shells at nearby settlements. Israeli military sources later told CNN that the military had traced the mortar source to the hospital, which then took IDF assault rifle fire, wounding at least eight other people.

The reaction of Hamas leaders was quick in coming, and fiery.

"The killing of civilians must be punished by the killing of civilians," said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior member of Hamas, the progenitor of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis. "For every crime there is a punishment and the response for today's massacre will come in the shape of escalating resistance and strikes everywhere in the land of Palestine," Zahar said.

Another Hamas leader went further. Urging Fatah movement's Al Aqsa Brigades, the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other militant groups to join in a wave of terror attacks against Israelis, Hamas official Abed al Aziz Rantisi was quoted by Israel Radio as declaring, "This is an appeal from the heart ... Strike everywhere, kill every Zionist wherever he comes from, whether from America or Russia, they are all murderers and criminals, and not a single one of them is an innocent... Anyone who calls for negotiations with Israel is a criminal."

Rantisi's remarks came one day after he was quoted by a Danish newspaper as admitting that Israel had succeeded, at least for the moment, in halting terror attacks and foiling Hamas operations.

Brigadier-General Ziv, for his part, insisted that his troops had fired at gunmen alone. He conceded, however, that "I assume that it cannot be ruled out that in a residential neighborhood with this volume of gunfire, innocent people were also hit, but our forces' fire was relatively accurate, it was directed at armed men, and it hit them."

Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri was more succinct. "The moment that the army went in there, they were fired on from every window and every opening, so our soldiers had to do their job," said Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri. "The most militant of Hamas men are located there, and if damage was caused to innocent civilians, we can be sorry, but what can you do - this is war."

It remains, as well, a war without any end in sight. This, despite mounting indications in recent weeks that Palestinians were beginning to question the efficacy of terrorism as the driving force of their fight for independence.

At the weekend, senior Palestinian Authority official Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, said the PA was prepared to impose security in Gaza to help end violence, but first sought Israeli and U.S. guarantees that areas under its jurisdiction would not be attacked and would be free from "assassinations, invasions and destruction."

There were signs Monday that it may be too late for PA forces, battered by repeated Israeli assaults on their infrastructure, to assert authority over Hamas. In Gaza, masked gunmen murdered the commander of the PA's riot police squad, and there were reports of bloody street fighting between rival Hamas and PA loyalists.

Some Israeli leftists perceive the Al Amal neighborhood raid as the latest in a series of incidents in which an Israeli military mission ended a period of calm, spawning in its wake a fresh surge of bombings and extinguishing any embers of diplomatic progress.

But military officials maintain that the apparent quiet masks an unceasing, daily campaign by Hamas and other groups to carry out murderous attacks, scores of which have been thwarted by the Shin Bet, police, army, paramilitary Border Police, and other security forces.

By this standard, Ziv pronounced the Gaza operation "very important", saying that it had achieved its aim of showing Hamas that the movement had no place to hide. It was, he said, a "significant blow to what they themselves defined and viewed as an impregnable, impenetrable stronghold, and this operation proved to them that there is no such place. There is no place that we cannot reach and hurt them."

But Left-centrist Labor Party figure Haim Ramon clearly had his doubts about the overall wisdom of the mission. He said Monday that while Hamas must be battled as the fountainhead of Palestinian terrorism, "until now, the policy was always to try to be careful to hit terrorists but not innocents. The rule was that even if we knew that there was a terrorist in an area, if he was in the midst of a civilian population, we would cancel the operation."

Ramon said he had repeatedly asked senior IDF commanders if that policy had changed, and their answer was "under no circumstances."

"This is not only a moral consideration, as important as the moral dimension is," Ramon stressed. "Harming civilians in an operation such as this spurs an increase in the participation of Palestinians in terrorism, and widens the circle of bloodletting between the sides."

Ramon refrained from directly criticizing the Gaza raid, but said that Israel had all too often embroiled itself in recent missions that had led to civilian deaths.

"Apart from increasing the number of Palestinians who turn to terrorism, this also harms our international standing and thus our battle against terrorism," Ramon concluded. "Therefore, these operations must be done with a great deal of forethought, and without a too-easy trigger finger."