The Israeli military has closed in on densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip, seeking to kill gunmen loyal to the militant group Hamas. Israeli war planes are pounding targets in Gaza as part of an effort to stop rocket attacks aimed at the Jewish state.
Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and since its creation in 1987 the militant group has been in a nearly constant state of conflict with the Jewish state.
Hamas, an acronym of an Arabic phrase (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya) that translates into the Islamic Resistance Movement, grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization founded in Egypt.
Hamas' founder and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, preached and did charitable work in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were occupied by Israel after the 1967 Middle East War.
Yassin, a frail quadriplegic who was nearly blind, established Hamas following the eruption of the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
Yassin was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2004 and more than 200,000 Palestinians are estimated to have marched at his funeral.
In 2006, Hamas won a surprise victory in legislative elections in Gaza and the West Bank, defeating Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas took military control of Gaza in 2007, leading Israel to clamp tight restrictions on the border in an attempt to end rocket attacks from the militant group.
After an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire ended late last year and more rockets came streaming out of Gaza, Israel launched its latest military assault.
"To the Zionist criminals, you will be defeated, God willing," said Mohammed Al Bitawi, a Hamas legislator in the West Bank. "There is no place for you in this land. Not between us and these murderers. You will pay a very high price. This nation will not die and we will not give up, ever."
Perhaps Hamas is best known for recruiting, training and arming suicide bombers.
The Council on Foreign Relations estimates Hamas has killed at least 500 people in more than 350 separate terrorist attacks.
During the second intifada, especially between 2001 and 2003, Hamas carried out numerous suicide attacks leading Israel to begin construction of a barrier between the Jewish state and the West Bank.
Despite the massive Israeli attacks on Gaza, some analysts like Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Institute, say Hamas will declare victory after the shooting is over.
"If three guys and two rockets survive and what we used to call a ditto [copying] machine so they can turn out statements, I think Hamas will count this as a political victory," Lippman said.
Many Palestinians have supported Hamas because of its extensive network of social services.
Hamas runs schools, orphanages, mosques, health care clinics, soup kitchens and sports leagues.
Frequently, the Palestinian Authority has failed to provide such services and many Fatah officials have been accused of corruption.
Among Palestinians, Hamas politicians have a reputation for honesty, which helps explain their popularity.
The Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, Shibley Telhami, says the massive destruction in Gaza will make it difficult for Hamas to rule.
"It certainly is going to affect Hamas' capacities," Telhami said. "At some level militarily, at some level politically, they gain a little in public opinion, they might operationally be hurt. But one thing we know that is going to be hurt and that is their governance capacity."
Hamas has long opposed the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
Analyst Lippman predicts the Gaza conflict will derail any efforts to rejuvenate the process in the near future.
"It seems to me that Hamas has dictated the agenda here," he said. "I cannot imagine any circumstances under which it would be useful or fruitful to announce some new drive for a comprehensive peace settlement."
While the anti-Israeli sentiment is running high in the Arab world, some Middle East analysts say it is critical that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama launch a significant peace initiative soon, at least in part to support Arab governments that back the peace process, but may have been weakened by public anger over the situation in Gaza.
They say countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a war of ideas against those who promote confrontation with Israel.
Two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk spoke recently at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"They are trying to show their people that reconciliation, compromise, peacemaking, tolerance is the best way to advance the interests of the Arab people," he said. "The message coming from Hamas and Hezbollah, backed by Iran, is,'Our way works; violence, terrorism, resistance, defiance is the best way to achieve dignity and justice for the Palestinians and the Arabs'."
Historically, much of the funding for Hamas has come from Palestinian expatriates and private donors in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. Iran also provides considerable support, which some estimates say could amount to $20- to $30 million per year.
The U.S. and European Union have labeled Hamas a terrorist organization, but both have sought an easing of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.