WASHINGTON — The Gaza Strip wasn't supposed to be like this.
In August 2005, when Israel unilaterally withdrew from the narrow coastal territory, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised it would make Israel safer. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed the move as "historic."
Israel had left behind a political vacuum, however. That, along with decisions by Israel, the U.S. and Palestinian rivals inadvertently boosted the militant Islamic group Hamas into power. Hamas is stronger than ever, and Israel's air strikes risk bolstering it further, according to current and former U.S. officials, diplomats and analysts.
Israeli leaders say the aim of their five-day-old military offensive in Gaza is to crush Hamas's ability to fire rockets into southern Israeli cities. U.S. analysts warn of collateral damage, however, that would further weaken Mahmoud Abbas, the secular Palestinian president who's committed to an eventual peace deal with Israel.
While Israel already has destroyed much of Hamas's infrastructure, "I don't see how this changes the fundamental balance of power" in the Palestinian areas, said Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
"Hamas is already relevant in a way that undermines Abbas's fecklessness," said Miller, who's now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Said an Arab diplomat: "The only way to weaken Hamas is politically," rather than via military force.
A senior Israeli diplomat acknowledged that Hamas had deliberately goaded Israel into a military strike to boost the group's credentials as a front-line force against Israel. With Israeli citizens under attack, Israel had to act in order to not look weak, he said, particularly in the face of a threat from Lebanon-based Hezbollah on its northern border and an election looming in February.
Both diplomats requested anonymity in order to speak more freely.
Sharon, who suffered a stroke in January 2006 that left him in a coma, had argued that disengagement from Gaza would improve Israel's strategic position and bolster "moderate forces" among the Palestinians "who want to make the right choice."
Palestinian leaders, however, were never able, or willing, to begin building their state in Gaza.
Even without its troops or the 9,000 Jewish settlers in place, Israel retained a chokehold over the strip, controlling major land crossings into Israel, Gaza's airspace and the waters off its Mediterranean seacoast.
Then, in January 2006, the Palestinians, with strong backing from the Bush administration, held legislative elections. Over Israeli misgivings, Hamas — which has questioned Israel's right to exist and which the U.S. and Israel consider terrorist group — was allowed to participate.
Hamas won a majority of seats, benefiting from the perceived corruption and incompetence of Abbas's Fatah faction.
"The United States should have anticipated a result it didn't like, and it should have played it better," said Jon Alterman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Hamas has much more power now than it did three years ago," he said.
After the elections, the Bush administration began an effort to reverse the results, McClatchy reported in 2007, but it failed to weaken the group or persuade it to modify its hard-line views. As the months went on, Washington opposed Arab efforts to form a Palestinian unity government and pressed Abbas to confront Hamas.
In June 2007, after months of factional fighting, Hamas forces overran Gaza, ousting Fatah's foreign-armed and trained security forces. The U.S. rounded up diplomatic and financial support for Abbas, and Israel responded by clamping down harder on Gaza.
An uneasy, Egyptian-mediated truce expired this month and Hamas began intensifying its rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.
Scarred by their experience in the Lebanon war of 2006, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's promise to eliminate Hezbollah proved to be a mirage, Israeli leaders are offering narrow military goals for the Gaza operation.
The senior Israeli diplomat declined to outline a political endgame. He said he hoped that Palestinians would compare life under Hamas in Gaza with the West Bank, where economic conditions are much better and Palestinian security forces are becoming increasingly capable.
Other observers warned that Hamas, should it survive the siege intact, could end up emboldened.
"It's highly possible that this will be a rallying point for Hamas. I believe it will weaken Mahmoud Abbas," said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that despite investing political capital and diplomatic energy in recent years, the U.S. "has not strengthened Fatah and (Abbas) in a very clear fashion."
The violence appears all but certain to complicate President-elect Barack Obama's hopes of vigorous mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after he takes office Jan. 20.
Rice argued recently that the Bush administration has improved the situation after inheriting a violent Palestinian uprising in 2001. "We have left this in a much better place," she said in an interview with Agence France Presse on Dec. 22. Five days later, Israel launched its offensive.
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