TIME Military

Dam Yankees: U.S. Steps Up Bombing in Northern Iraq

IRAQ-UNREST-KURDS-DAM
Smokes rises from U.S. air strikes near Mosul dam on Sunday. Ahmad Al-Ruhbye—AFP/Getty Images

But limiting strikes for political reasons may prove untenable

The Obama Administration made clear last week that its ban against U.S. “boots on the ground” inside Iraq only pertained to combat boots. Sunday, it went back to its dictionary and stretched the definition of “humanitarian” to include offensive bombing strikes against Islamist militants in northern Iraq.

That’s because ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized the Mosul dam, it has had the power to release the reservoir behind it, turning the Tigris River downstream into Class V rapids with a 60-foot wall of water.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” President Barack Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders.

The U.S. military launched 23 airstrikes on ISIS targets over the weekend, including 14 on Sunday. A fleet of fighter-bombers, bombers and drones took out nearly 20 ISIS vehicles—mostly U.S.-built armor and Humvees that ISIS captured from retreating Iraqi forces—on Sunday alone. An Iraq military spokesman said Monday that Iraqi special forces and Kurdish fighters had regained control of the dam, although that claim has not been confirmed.

“These operations are limited in their nature, duration, and scope,” Obama said, “and are being undertaken in coordination with and at the request of the government of Iraq.”

The weekend air strikes nearly doubled the number the U.S. has launched in Iraq since they began Aug. 8, and marked the most coordinated military effort between U.S. and Iraqi forces since the U.S. military left the country in 2011.

Pentagon fingers are crossed that the combination of U.S. air strikes and Iraqi ground operations will be sufficient to defeat ISIS. Defense officials, and the White House, are acutely aware that the American public has no appetite for deeper involvement—military or otherwise—in Iraq.

The operation makes military sense, but justifying it using the original two-prong test—Obama said Aug. 7 that the U.S. would attack targets in Iraq only “to protect our American personnel, and… to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death”—may prove too convenient.

“This policy of not dealing with it as an ecosystem I think is wrong,” Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS on Sunday. “They have a long-term plan about where they’re going that would establish their caliphate from Beirut through Syria through Iraq.”

ISIS wants to create that caliphate from which it would seek to attack the U.S. and other targets in the west. Every time the Administration expands its military footprint in Iraq to deal with the threat—and justifies it on humanitarian grounds, or to protect U.S. personnel—it restrains its freedom to act the next time if stronger military action is required.

TIME Military

U.S. No Longer Waging a Time-Share War

Peshmerga forces enter Makhmur
Kurdish Peshmerga forces regained some territory in northern Iraq on Sunday. Ensar Ozdemir / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Unlike Obama's earlier military orders, his Iraq plan lacks a deadline

President Obama was eager to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, is eager to pull them out of Afghanistan, and refused to put them into Libya and Syria. His reticence is justifiably rooted in opposition at home to any more ground combat following more than a decade of war after 9/11.

But over the weekend, he warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s threat to Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq warranted U.S. military airstrikes, and that they could continue over a sustained period of time. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” he said Saturday. “This is going to take some time.” On Sunday, Kurdish forces reportedly ousted ISIS fighters from a pair of border towns 20 miles from Erbil as U.S. warplanes conducted a third consecutive day of attacks on ISIS forces.

Changes in waging war have proliferated since the so-called non-state actors known as al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center towers, attacked the Pentagon and sent United Flight 93 diving into a Pennsylvania field. The foe is elusive, metamorphosing from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS, as the jihadist leaders wage battle among themselves for supremacy.

Any conflict that begins, as the latest Iraq venture did, with humanitarian airdrops to thousands of dehydrated and hungry Yazidis in and around Mount Sinjar makes for a different kind of war.

Obama said he acted because of concerns for the safety of U.S. military advisers and consular officials in Erbil, threatened by an ISIS advances over the past week. The advisers are there, and in Baghdad, to plot how the U.S. can aid the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in its battle against ISIS. Without such a U.S. stake in Libya or Syria, he has felt no need to take military action there.

But the flames now burning around the Middle East are part of a larger conflagration, fueled by crumbling autocracies and religious zealots, who are recruiting unemployed young men eager to belong to something bigger than themselves.

The U.S. and other Western nations essentially are biding their time, hoping such fires will eventually die out with minimal involvement by them. That could happen.

But if ISIS succeeds in establishing anything approximating a real state straddling the Syrian-Iraq border, it will become a new launching pad for attacks against the U.S. and its interests, just like in Taliban-led Afghanistan.

“Every day that goes by, ISIS builds up this caliphate and it becomes a direct threat to the United States of America,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “They are more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11.”

Obama and his successor know that they cannot allow a jihadist-run state, pledged to killing “infidels,” in the heart of the Middle East.

“I would be rushing equipment to Erbil,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN Sunday. “I would be launching airstrikes, not only in Iraq but in Syria against ISIS.”

In a prescient comment that turned out to be correct, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned in 2003 that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be “a long, hard slog.” Americans tired of both, in part because of the Bush Administration’s ambitious, costly and unrealized plans for remaking both nations.

But what we’re seeing now is a new kind of war, and it requires a new kind of leadership.

Iraq, for its part, needs a leader who can gather its warring factions under one roof and turn it into a functioning 21st Century state.

If such a leader fails to materialize, Iraq will continue its slow-motion suicide.

Then it will take a U.S. leader who is willing to detail the possible risks of continued half-hearted actions—what the New York Times called “a Military Middle Road” in a Sunday headline—in the region. He—or she—will have to fashion a new kind of calibrated, and sustained, warfare that a democracy can support.

TIME National Security

Experts Warn of Terrorism Blowback From Iraq Air Strikes

IRAQ-UNREST-KURDS
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of Baghdad, during clashes with ISIS militants on August 9, 2014 Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

ISIS has long threatened America openly — will Obama's strikes inspire it to act?

The American air strikes against a militant group in Iraq could motivate the fighters to retaliate with terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians, experts warn.

President Barack Obama’s air strikes against militants from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) “could increase the likelihood that ISIS or somebody inspired by ISIS, would strike against the homeland,” says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert with Rand Corp.

ISIS has long threatened America openly. In June the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned Americans that “soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation [with us].” Last week a spokesman for the group vowed that “we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”

Despite that bombastic rhetoric, ISIS has thus far been consumed with its fights in Iraq and Syria, and with capturing territory to form an Islamic caliphate. But counterterrorism officials worry that the fanatical group could now place a higher priority on attacking Americans. Jihadists in online forums and on Twitter are already calling for terrorist attacks in response to Obama’s intervention in Iraq.

The prospect of blowback was on the mind of senior officials even before Obama approved air strikes last week.

“That’s one of the downsides of U.S. involvement,” former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told CBS News in June. “The more we visibly get involved in helping the [Iraqi] government fight these guys, the more we become a target.”

A U.S. intelligence official would not say whether the threat level has escalated, saying the U.S. continues to monitor the known ISIS threat. “ISIS has previously stated its willingness to strike targets outside of the region and the [intelligence community] is working in close coordination with our allies to track these threats,” says Brian Hale, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In July, Brett McGurk, the top State Department official for Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the 30 to 50 suicide bombers per month deployed in Syria and Iraq by ISIS “are increasingly Western passport holders,” and that “it is a matter of time before these suicide bombers are directed elsewhere.”

Several experts agreed that attacking ISIS will make the group more eager to strike back against America, but said the threat is hard to calculate — and no reason to avoid taking on the group.

“U.S. strikes against ISIS may well raise that group’s interest in carrying out terrorist attacks against U.S. targets,” says Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official now at Dartmouth College. “But the significance of that shouldn’t be overstated.”

Benjamin questions whether the ISIS threat has increased significantly, given its previously known desire to kill Americans. Regardless, he adds: “We can’t let our policies be held hostage by this concern.”

Obama’s strikes this month mark the first direct U.S. attacks on ISIS in its current form. But the U.S. military did battle with the group’s prior incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. occupation of that country in the mid-2000s. AQI never found a way to hit Americans beyond the Iraq battlefield.

But since splitting with al-Qaeda, broadening its ambition and declaring itself ISIS — and, more recently, the Islamic State — the group has attracted Westerners whose passports could grant them easy entry to Europe and the U.S.

“What is concerning, and which makes this situation different,” warns Jones of Rand Corp., is that large complement of Western fighters, which AQI did not posses. “The connections to this battlefield from the West are stronger than they were a decade ago.”

Jones says there’s precedent for the U.S. drawing the attention of a regionally focused terrorist group by targeting its ranks. The attempted 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was trained and directed to strike the U.S. by the Pakistani Taliban, which sought revenge for American drone strikes against the group’s leadership.

At least one expert on Sunni radical groups doubts that Obama’s strikes make Americans any less safe, however.

“I don’t think this changes [ISIS's] calculus,” says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are likely planning attacks whether the U.S. conducts targeted air strikes or not. We shouldn’t have reactionary policy when it comes to [ISIS] anyway — why would we let them continue to grow just because they aren’t attacking us now?”

“In my opinion,” Zelin says, “we should destroy them as soon as possible.”

TIME Foreign Policy

The U.S. Will Spend $110 Million a Year on African Peacekeeping Efforts

Uganda
A soldier from the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) engages in weapons training at the Singo training facility in Kakola, Uganda Monday, April 30, 2012. The camp provides different training courses run by the U.S. Marines and also by instructors contracted by the U.S. State Department. Ben Curtis—ASSOCIATED PRESS

The plan is to help fund African rapid-response forces that will deal with armed Islamist groups

Correction appended, Aug. 7

During the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington on Wednesday, President Barack Obama unveiled plans to invest $110 million annually over the next three to five years to help six African countries create rapid-response forces, Reuters reports.

At a summit news conference, Obama said the funds the funds would boost African Union and U.N. operations in crisis spots around the continent, using peacekeepers from Ethiopia, Uganda, Senegal, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ghana.” Obama said that the funds are meant to remedy the current “gap in systematically supporting these peacekeepers to help them deploy more quickly.”

The U.S. has become more involved in supporting African military efforts to combat Islamic extremists recently, training over a quarter-million African police and military.

Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., added that the U.S. hoped to create “troop-contributing countries” that would fight off extremist groups like al-Shabab, al-Qaeda affiliates and Boko Haram, which has killed over 10,000 people since it began its uprising in Nigeria in 2009.

Obama also announced intentions to spend an initial $65 million on strengthening security efforts in Niger, Tunisia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Kenya. Along with the funding, Obama unveiled a plan called the Security Governance Initiative, which will help bolster security sectors and other infrastructures that offer crises resolution in Africa.

[Reuters]

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified countries as crisis zones where African Union and United Nations peacekeepers would be deployed.

TIME Israel

Construction Vehicle Attack Shatters Quiet in Jerusalem

Photos show extent of the damage

Israeli authorities say a man rammed a construction excavator into a bus in Jerusalem on Monday before he was shot dead by a police officer; hours later a gunman reportedly opened fire near Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, injuring a soldier before fleeing on a motorcycle.

The attacks came amid terrorism concerns in Israel arising from the nearly month-long war in Gaza. Officials in Gaza say 1,831 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since Israel launched its offensive July 8 with the aim of eliminating the means of firing rockets from Gaza into Israel. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed.

The driver of the construction vehicle killed a pedestrian Monday and then overturned the bus in what police described as a “terrorist attack,” Reuters reports. There were no passengers on the bus, but the images above reveal the destructive impact of the rampage.

Assailants in Israel have used construction vehicles in the past. In 2008, a Palestinian plowed a bulldozer into a Jerusalem bus, killing three and injuring dozens of others. Weeks later, a man in a bulldozer plowed into five cars and wounded more than 2o people.

TIME China

China Now Says Almost 100 Were Killed in Xinjiang Violence

China Steps Up Security Following Xinjiang Unrest
Chinese soldiers march in front of the Id Kah Mosque, China's largest, in Kashgar, on July 31, 2014. China has increased security in many parts of restive Xinjiang following some of the worst violence in months Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Tensions in China's northwestern frontier region are escalating rapidly

It took a week, but authorities have finally released a death toll for the violence that rocked China’s far northwestern frontier on July 28. Early reports said “dozens” were killed or injured; now the government says nearly 100 were killed, and 215 arrested, making it the deadliest single incident since riots hit Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009. But even as more details are released, questions remain about what, exactly, happened in Shache County (also known as Yarkand in the Uighur language). And with the area shut to foreign journalists, and Internet access spotty across the region, those questions will be difficult to answer.

As TIME reported last week, there are at least two competing accounts of what happened in Shache — and neither feels complete. Some 24 hours after the unrest, China’s official newswire Xinhua issued a breaking-news alert stating that dozens had been killed or injured in a premeditated terrorist attack on a police station in Xinjiang. After local officials discovered a cache of explosives, state media said, knife-wielding mobs went on a rampage, killing civilians and torching several vehicles. One report speculated that the attack was timed to coincide with a commodity fair.

The official narrative has changed in the interim. The latest details released by Chinese authorities suggest the incident was both more severe, and less isolated, than it initially seemed. State media now put the death toll at 96, including 37 civilians, and 59 people identified as terrorists. The violence “was preceded by a large-scale police crackdown in Hotan,” reported the Global Times, and was “followed” by the murder, in Kashgar, of an imam with ties to the government. Chinese news outlets say the unrest was coordinated by extremists with links to a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and that banners calling for jihad were found at the scene.

Other groups paint a strikingly different picture. An early report by Uighur-speaking Radio Free Asia reporters Shohret Hoshur and Eset Sulaiman said the uprising was linked to restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the alleged extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family. In their account — which here bears some similarity to the government’s narrative — knife- and ax-wielding Uighurs went on a rampage and were subsequently gunned down by Chinese police. A representative from the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas exile group, presented a slightly different story, saying the armed Uighurs were in fact protesters speaking out against the Ramadan restrictions, not rioters per se.

The divergent accounts say much about the divisions affecting Xinjiang, and the difficulty of reporting on the area. The vast area known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, but is claimed also as Chinese territory. Since coming to power, the Chinese Communist Party has sent waves of migrants to Xinjiang in an attempt to settle its far west; in 1949, China’s ethnic Han majority accounted for only about 6% of the population; today, the figure is more than 40%. The government says it is bringing prosperity to the region, but many ethnic Uighurs say they have been cut off from the economic benefits and resent restrictions on freedom of movement and their right to practice their faith. A small minority has waged a decades-long struggle against Chinese authorities, often targeting police stations or transport hubs.

Over the past year, the conflict has intensified considerably. In October 2013, an SUV carrying three ethnic Uighurs plowed through tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five, including the occupants. In March 2014, a group of black-clad, knife-wielding attackers slashed its way through a busy train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. Chinese authorities blamed that incident, and two subsequent ambushes in the regional capital, Urumqi, on terrorist groups with overseas ties. Little information has been released about the perpetrators or their victims. And with much of Xinjiang closed to foreign reporters, the government’s account is difficult to independently confirm.

The central government has responded by tightening already stringent security measures and stepping up efforts to integrate Uighurs — by force, if necessary. There are police trucks and officers in riot gear in town squares across the region, and many towns, particularly in Uighur-dominated southwest Xinjiang, are now sealed off by police checkpoints. The physical lockdown has come with curbs on religious practice, including attempts to ban civil servants from fasting during Ramadan and, reportedly, efforts to stop Uighur women from covering their hair.

The authorities are calling the latest crackdown a “people’s war” on terrorism, urging — and in many cases, paying — people to come forward with information about suspicious activity. The government recently announced it would offer 300 million yuan ($48.6 million), in cash for “hunting terrorists.” At a recent ceremony in the city of Hotan, 10,000 local officials and civilians were given some 4.23 million yuan ($685,000) for their trouble. Critics worry, however, that the scheme will only deepen distrust between Uighurs and the Han-dominated central government, turning neighbors against each other and potentially criminalizing certain religious practices that have nothing to do with organized terrorism.

Meanwhile, amid calls for calm, the government’s rhetoric is heating up. In the wake of the latest attack, Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian, promised an even tougher crackdown to come. “We have to hit hard, hit accurately and hit with awe-inspiring force,” he said. “To fight such evils we must aim at extermination. To cut weeds we must dig out the roots.”

The statement was no doubt designed to reassure people that the government has the situation under control. Somehow, though, the nihilistic imagery feels more like a warning of more conflict, and violence, to come.

TIME Terrorism

Bill Clinton Said The Day Before 9/11 He Could Have Killed Bin Laden

Listen to the audio

Chilling audio of former President Bill Clinton admitting that he turned down an opportunity to attack Osama bin Laden during his presidency was recently uncovered by Sky News Australia. The audio was recorded on September 10, 2001, one day before the 9/11 attacks which claimed nearly 3,000 lives and dramatically impacted the course of global history.

“I could have killed him, but I would have had to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children,” Clinton said. “And then I would have been no better than him.”

Sky News obtained this footage of the former U.S. President through former Australian politician Michael Kroger.

TIME

China: Dozens Dead or Injured in Xinjiang ‘Terror,’ but Facts Are Few and Far Between

A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi
A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an antiterrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi, China's Xinjiang region, on May 23, 2014 Stringer China—Reuters

Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival

Some time on Monday, in a small town near China’s northwest frontier, dozens of people were injured or lost their lives. Two days later, we do not know who died, how they were killed or what sparked the violence. And with the area effectively sealed off by Chinese security forces, and the Internet up and down across the area, it is possible we never really will.

Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Chinese state media reported that dozens of civilians were killed or injured in a premeditated terrorist attack in Shache county (or Yarkand in the Uighur language). The news, which was not released until more than 24 hours after the incident, was cast as evidence of organized terrorism by ethnic Uighur extremists. Their account suggests that knife-wielding mobs went on a rampage after officials discovered some explosives and foiled a terrorist plot that may or may not have been timed to coincide with a commodity fair.

An account by the nonprofit Radio Free Asia (RFA) paints an altogether different picture. Reporters for the outlet’s Uighur-language news service say dozens of “knife- and ax-wielding” ethnic Uighurs were shot by police in a riot sparked by restrictions during Ramadan. “There has been a lot of pent-up frustration over house-to-house searches and checking on headscarves [worn by Uighur women] during this Ramadan,” Alim Adurshit, a local official, told RFA. The report also mentioned the extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family — an incident that has not been reported by Chinese state press and that TIME has not independently confirmed.

The dueling narratives point to the challenge of figuring out what, exactly, is happening in China’s vast and restless northwest. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where the incident took place, is contested space. It is both claimed as the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, and also as Chinese territory. In recent years, the area has seethed with unrest attributed, depending on whom you ask, to Islamic terrorism, separatism or heavy-handed repression by the state. For years now, a small minority has fought against the government, usually by targeting symbols of state power, including police stations and transport hubs.

The past year has been particularly bloody. In October, an SUV plowed through crowds of tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five — including three inside the vehicle — and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities said the vehicle was driven by ethnic Uighurs, but revealed little else. In March, a group of knife-wielding attackers slashed and stabbed their way through a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. The government blamed that incident, and two subsequent attacks in the regional capital, Urumqi, on separatists from Xinjiang.

Beijing has responded by doubling down on already aggressive security measures and their campaign of forced cultural integration. Across the region, town squares are now patrolled by armed security personnel in riot gear, and villages are sealed off by police checkpoints. Ethnic Uighurs are stopped and searched. Meanwhile, the government has stepped up limits on religious practice by, for instance, putting age restrictions on mosque visits and banning students and government workers from fasting during Ramadan.

In the context of this division and distrust, it makes sense that there are competing claims. The trouble is, China prevents outsiders from gathering information on their own. The foreign press corps is, by virtue of China’s rules, based far from Xinjiang, primarily in the Han-majority cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Travel to Xinjiang, while not officially forbidden, is effectively restricted. When I visited Urumqi and Hotan in late May, security personnel harassed my Chinese colleague, questioned me, followed our movements and stopped us from traveling to the city of Kashgar.

The ruling Communist Party’s powers of information control are also a factor. On a good day, China’s Great Firewall makes it difficult for citizens to share information that censors might consider politically sensitive; other days, it is impossible. Following the violent suppression of the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the government effectively turned off the region’s Internet for nine months. There are reports the web is off and on again now, which may help explain why so little has emerged in terms of firsthand accounts or photographic evidence.

Overseas-based Uighur groups say until there is transparency, the public should not trust the state’s account. “China does not want the world to know what occurred on Monday,” said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, in a statement. “As little is known of the circumstances of their killing, due to tight restrictions on information, UAA seeks an open investigation into the incident and the loss of dozens of lives.”

With every instance of violence, that looks less likely to happen.

TIME Middle East

Israel’s Operation in Gaza Spreads Beyond Just Tunnels

The collapsed minaret of mosque seen from the destroyed living room of a Palestinian family in a building across the street in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2014.
The collapsed minaret of mosque seen from the destroyed living room of a Palestinian family in a building across the street in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2014. Oliver Weiken—EPA

The Israeli Defense Forces now have Gaza's infrastructure in their sights

Updated July 30, 6:06 a.m. ET

Israeli officials have said in the past week that their main goal in the war against Hamas in Gaza is to destroy as many of what it calls “terror tunnels,” the underground passages built by the militant group that have repeatedly been used to infiltrate Israel. But following a day in which Hamas militants managed to kill 10 Israeli soldiers, Israel responded Tuesday with massive air strikes that seemed aimed at both major infrastructure as well as the visible symbols of Hamas’s power in the Gaza Strip.

In overnight strikes on Monday by aircraft, tanks and navy gunboats, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacked 150 targets in Gaza, including the home and office of Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh’s home, the influential Shujaiyeh battalion commander’s home and the Ministry of Finance, as well as al-Aqsa Radio and al-Aqsa Television, two media outlets operated by Hamas. The IDF said it attacked two Hamas command centers and four weapons-storage sites hidden inside mosques and a tunnel Tuesday, before targeting five mosques overnight where it said Hamas had hidden weapons.

Most prominently, it struck Gaza’s main power plant, all but destroying it. “The plant wasn’t working fully in the past few months due to shortages of fuel that comes from Israel,” Rafeeq Abu Maliha, the plant’s director, told reporters. “Three days ago Israel started to hit the station. The first time one missile hit the water and cooling engine. The second air strike they hit the administration building. Last night’s strike was on [a] streaming engine, and in the morning today the tanks of fuel were hit and caused a huge fire in the station.” Gaza has been suffering from severe shortages of power for years,” he said, and many areas of the power plant hit over the course of the war were not currently repairable because of “access difficulties.”

Israel renewed intense airstrikes on Gaza
A Palestinian man walks in front of a fire raging at Gaza’s main power plant on July 29, 2014, in Gaza City, following an overnight Israeli air strike Oliver Weiken—EPA

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces denied the power station had been on Israel’s hit-list. “The power plant definitely was not a target,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner tells TIME. “We checked with all the forces in the area, air, ground and naval, and we’ve not been able to determine that the IDF has carried out this strike. It could be a Palestinian mortar hit it – we don’t know.” He said the IDF was “looking into” the incident.

Tunnels and rockets are easy for Israel to explain as military targets — both directly threaten Israeli citizens. But if it did intentionally hit the power plant, as well as government and communications buildings, it might indicate that Israel is taking its Operation Protective Edge to a far more punishing level — a move some more conservative members in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have long advocated. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett of the influential Jewish Home party on Tuesday said that simply destroying Hamas’ tunnel network isn’t enough, and called on Israel to continue the operation until Hamas loses control. “Hit Hamas without mercy,” Bennett said. “Day and night. On weekdays and holidays. Without respite and without rest. Until they are defeated.”

Whether or not the more conservative Bennett represents the mainstream thinking of the Israeli government, he’s been able to repeatedly make strong statements without a public reprimand from Netanyahu. What seems clear is that the Israeli government and the top political brass fall into two camps: those who see the war ending with the goal of deterrence — hurting Hamas’ military capabilities and making them think twice before launching another rocket once a meaningful cease-fire is actually reached — and those who are gunning for destruction, whether by bringing Hamas to its knees or by managing to overthrow it altogether.

But Talal Okal, an independent Palestinian analyst who lives in Gaza, argues that an extended bombing campaign would be unlikely to topple Hamas. On the contrary, the destruction being broadcast from Gaza will only underscore the need for the kind of international rebuilding efforts that can only be achieved by lifting the embargo on the strip — which happens to be a main demand of Hamas. “I don’t think the Israeli targeting of infrastructure will push Hamas to collapse, but it will be an extra reason to insist to make removing the siege that was imposed seven years ago,” he says. “Everyone suffers from it, Hamas people and ordinary Gazans.

“But at the same time it might push the people to trend more toward finding a political solution soon, as the war is more tiring by the day. I think people are actually supporting Hamas more than in previous wars as there are dead [Israeli] soldiers” for Hamas to point to as a tangible achievement, he explains. “The loss is not only in Gaza but also in Israel, so that would make the people here able to survive and stand more.”

No one doubts that the conditions in Gaza have become extreme. The loss of electricity is causing water shortages and sanitation challenges. The electricity lines along the main street of Gaza City are down entirely, as well as in frontline areas like Shujaiya, Beit Hanoun, Zaitoun and the east of Khan Younis. With no electricity available to charge phones and with many land lines cut by IDF strikes, it is becoming hard for many Gazans to so much as place a phone call to check on a relative or call an ambulance in the event of an emergency.

“Since last night we have been hearing shelling and bombs in the area of the plant, and we’ve had no electricity for three days now,” says Yasser Bakheet, 28, a resident of Nussirat, a neighborhood near the power plant. As much as a missile strike, he now fears an ongoing humanitarian disaster and the outbreak of disease in Gaza. “I don’t care about politics,” he says. “What I care about now is to live normally or at least get the basic needs for me and my family.”

Late Tuesday, the latest diplomatic efforts raised hopes that a cease-fire could be on the horizon. But Mohammed Deif, the head of al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said in broadcast comments that there would be no truce in Gaza unless Israel lifts its “siege.” Fighting continued overnight, with a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp attacked and at least 15 Palestinians killed. Tuesday was the deadliest day in the conflict so far, a Gaza health official told the AP. A war that was billed as an operation to halt Hamas rocket fire seems no closer to resolution than when it started three weeks ago.

— With reporting by Hazem Balousha / Gaza City

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 28

1. Hamas doesn’t want to beat Israel in the current battle of Gaza, they want to beat Fatah for the hearts of the Palestinian people.

By Hicham Mourad in Al-Ahram

2. The State Department is fighting a losing social media war with terrorists.

By Jacob Silverman in Politico

3. We shouldn’t need a guide: When to use ethnic slurs.

By Eric Liu in the Atlantic

4. Beyond producing more scientists, STEM education gives us creative problem-solvers who thrive in business and leadership.

By Jonathan Wei in Quartz

5. Giving while living: Americans should engage in philanthropy when they’re young.

By Christopher Oechsli in the Chronicle of Philanthropy

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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