The latest round of violence in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip is just the beginning, warns one of the top experts on the Middle East, and may prove to be the opening salvo in another escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based think-tank Middle East Forum, says Israel's missile and artillery strikes in Gaza yesterday, a response to rocket fire across the border between the strip and Israel, are the direct result of its withdrawal from the territory two weeks ago.
"We're going to see an escalating cycle of violence," he said. "Today was the immediate aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal."
Mr. Pipes, the author of 14 books on the Middle East, Islamic extremists and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says the air raids and shelling are proof that Israel's pullout from Gaza will not improve chances for peace.
In fact, he argues the pullout was "one of the biggest mistakes Israel has ever made."
The troop withdrawal, completed on Sept. 12 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for "disengaging" from conflict with the Palestinians, has emboldened the most extreme elements in Palestinian society, he says.
"What the Israelis did had the effect of giving enormous encouragement to ... the terrorists," Mr. Pipes says. "It confirmed that terrorism was successful; it encouraged them to pursue the same means that they've been pursuing in the West Bank [and] in Gaza.
"This moves the terrorists further away from giving up [and] now we've seen that the next round has already begun."
The Israeli offensive follows numerous attacks by makeshift rockets, fired from Gaza into the southern Israeli town of Sderot, and the kidnapping and murder of an Israeli settler by the terrorist group Hamas.
In the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, hit by several Israeli missiles, residents complained loudly that they wanted terrorists to stop lobbing rockets into Israel so they can rebuild their homes and shops, damaged after five years of Israeli raids and violent protests.
Hamas and the less influential Islamic Jihad have said they were halting the rocket attacks to avoid large-scale Israeli retaliation, but Mr. Pipes says their long-term goal, the destruction of the Jewish state, has not changed.
"That's manifested all the time -- in speeches, sermons, textbooks, media. It's all around: destroy Israel," he says. "The goal of Israel is to win the acceptance of its neighbours. It's got to be either one or the other.
"You can't find a compromise ... and past attempts, real attempts to find a compromise have all failed."
The withdrawal from Gaza gave Hamas and other extremist groups within the Palestinian territories the impression their campaigns of suicide bombings, ambushes and rocket attacks were succeeding against the Israelis, Mr. Pipes says.
"They did it [withdrew from Gaza] for tactical reasons, but what counts is how the Palestinians interpret it," he says.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, has said he will seek U.S. help in halting the escalating violence during a visit to Washington next month.
Mr. Pipes is confident he will succeed. "Clearly the Israelis have an enormous superiority in firepower and can defeat the Palestinians decisively in a straight slugging match. But it's also pretty clear that in a straight slugging match, the pressures on the Israelis to desist would be formidable," he says.
But Mr. Abbas is likely to face criticism from the United States over his apparent inability to stop extremists from firing rockets or mounting other attacks into Israel. Mr. Pipes says the Palestinian leader seems to genuinely want to bring the years of strife to an end, but may not be able to convince even members of his own faction to lay down their arms.
"I think he was sincere," he says. "[But] he never had the power to end it, and now he no longer has the argument. He can't say: 'Look, terrorism isn't working. Look where we are, look where Arafat's tactics brought, look how far we descended.'
"Now, today, it can be argued that it did work, that it gave them back Gaza."