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Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and thousands more wounded since Israel launched a military offensive in late December against the militant Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Israel says the military action was taken in response to persistent rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, which has been struck by thousands of missiles since 2001.

As international efforts at mediation quicken and the humanitarian situation in Gaza grows grimmer, here’s a quick look at some of the context to the latest chapter in the decades-long conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land:

Where is the Gaza Strip?
The Gaza Strip is a 146-square-mile strip of coastal land running along Israel's southwestern flank on the Mediterranean Sea and on the border with Egypt. About 1.5 million Palestinians live there and it is governed by the militant Islamist group Hamas.

What are both sides’ demands?
Israel has three main demands: an end to Palestinian attacks, international supervision of any truce and a halt to Hamas rearming.

In the immediate term, Hamas demands a cessation of Israeli attacks and the opening of vital Gaza-Israel cargo crossings, Gaza's main lifeline.

Why now?
An Egyptian-brokered truce between Hamas and Israel, intended to halt Hamas missiles from being fired into Israel and stop Israeli incursions into Gaza, lapsed on Dec. 19. Almost immediately dozens of rockets were fired into southern Israel and the Israeli military responded with its offensive on Dec. 27.

What's the big picture?
A battle over soil is at the heart of the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The lands that now make up Israel and the Palestinians territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip emerged out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after World War I.

Although initially run by the British under a League of Nations mandate, the United Nations recommended partitioning what was then called Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.

But Jewish settlers declared the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, prompting the surrounding Arab states to invade. By the end of the brief war, the land that was to have been the Palestinian Arab state was occupied partially by Israel and partially by Egypt and Jordan. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled Israeli-controlled territory and many wound up in refugee camps in the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip.

In the wars that did much to define the region in the ensuring decades, the Gaza Strip passed into Israeli control and, as a result of the Oslo accords, became partly autonomous under the Palestinian National Authority in 1994.

Israel continued to exercise considerable control in the area, however, and Israeli settlements that had been built during the period of military occupation remained.

Successive peace processes started and stalled in the following years. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians met commitments made under a timetable set forth in 2003 meant to lead to a Palestinian state next to Israel. Israel did eventually evacuate its settlements in the Gaza Strip, however, forcibly ejecting Israeli citizens from these settlements in 2005.

What's life like in Gaza?
Difficult. Conditions for regular Gazans, many of whom live in refugee camps, have deteriorated dramatically in recent years, with 80 percent living on less than $2.30 per day, according to the United Nations. Two-thirds of all Palestinians do not have access to a sewage system.

The population of Gaza is subject to Israeli closures and checkpoints, which often make it impossible to travel to or work in Israel and the West Bank.

Gaza lives under a tight blockade, which often makes it impossible for food, water, medical supplies and other essentials to reach the population.

The Israeli military has severely limited journalists’ access to Gaza following its invasion but reports indicate the situation is growing grimmer each day.

What's Hamas?
The organization grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987 and maintains that it will never agree to a permanent cease-fire while Israel occupies what it views as Palestinian land. Its stated aim is the destruction of the state of Israel.

Hamas includes political and military arms, but distinctions between the two are often difficult to discern. Khaled Mashaal, who has lived in Damascus since the 1990s, is considered the group’s leader.

The United States, the European Union and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization. It has links to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and members carry out suicide bombings and periodically hit southern Israel with rockets. However, the organization has also stepped into the void left by the often ineffectual and corrupt Palestinian Authority to offer basic services, including schools and health clinics, thereby gaining the trust of many Palestinians.

Parliamentary elections swept Hamas into power in January 2006. Hamas and the secular Palestinian party Fatah created a unity government, but pitched battles between opposing supporters led to the dissolution of the coalition in 2007. Tensions between the two groups, which briefly erupted into a virtual civil war, have cooled slightly but remain.

How has Israel reacted to Hamas?
Israel has long taken a hard line against the Islamist group. It has launched an effective assassination campaign against Hamas' leadership, killing among others its quadriplegic founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004. In 2007, Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier, prompting a major Israeli incursion into Gaza during which it arrests most Hamas cabinet members.

Since the current fighting began on Dec. 27, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has frequently said that no peace can be expected while Hamas remains in control of Gaza.

What is the world doing about the fighting?
The U.N. Security Council approved a resolution on Jan. 8 that demands a cessation of hostilities but both sides have so far ignored it. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States “fully supports” the resolution, but abstained from voting on it while mediation continued.

Egypt and France have taken the lead in trying to reach a truce.

More broadly, top figures in the Bush administration and in Congress have mostly supported Israel’s actions. The fighting is seen as a key test for the Obama administration, but the president-elect has so far been reluctant to comment specifically on the events.

AlertNet, BBC News, GlobalSecurity.org, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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