Gaza is an area in the southwest corner of Israel. It is about 25 miles long and 6 miles wide. It has a southern border with Egypt, a western border with the Mediterranean Sea, and all other borders are with Israel itself.
Egypt governed the Gaza strip from 1948-1967, with Israel taking control from 1967 until 1994. During this time Israel created settlements within the Gaza strip. 1994 began a period of phased transfer of governmental control of Gaza from Israel to the Palestinian Authority. The leader of the PA during this time was Yasser Arafat, who also controlled, through the PA, the West Bank (another, separate Palestinian controlled territory in the northern part of Israel).
In September 2005 Israel removed all military installations and civilian settlers from Gaza, giving full governmental control to the Palestinian Authority. However, Israel maintains complete control of airspace, sea ports, and all border crossings.
In January 2006 the PA held elections, and a group called Hamas won. They were viewed as a terrorist organization and refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence. As a result, the United States and the European Union ended monetary aid to the government. The economy of Gaza suffered greatly during this time.
One year later, in January of 2007, fighting broke out between Hamas and Fatah, the political party they defeated in the previous year's elections. Fatah had been the ruling party, being led by the now deceased Yasser Arafat. An intense civil war between the two Palestinian groups lasted for about 6 months, with Hamas winning and taking over complete control of Gaza. However, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank refused to recognize Hamas, and most of the international community followed suit. Hamas now controlled all of the Gaza Strip, but was completely isolated except for support from Syria and Iran, with the latter providing substantial monetary and military aid.
Throughout this time, thousands of rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza over the walls and into Israeli civilian areas. During just the first six months of 2008 there were 2,660 projectiles fired. Israel often responded with air strikes and incursions into Gaza to attack Hamas installations, resulting in militant and civilian deaths.
On June 19 a six-month peace agreement was signed, and rocket fire was cut to 65 for the next 4 months. Then in November, Israeli security forces caught a Hamas man tunneling under the wall. A small battle ensued and 5 Hamas members were killed. Consequently, rocket fired picked up, with 237 firings from November through December 10. The peace agreement ended on December 19 with no renewal, Hamas complaining that the borders were still closed and Israel unhappy with the continued rocket fire.
In late December, Hamas continued and increased its shelling of Israel while Israel remained steadfast in keeping the borders closed. On December 24th 87 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza. The next day the Israeli Prime Minister went on an Arabic station in an effort to convince civilians to apply pressure to Hamas leadership to stop the shelling. On the 26th Israel opened 5 border crossings and allowed humanitarian supplies into Gaza. About a dozen rockets were fired that day from Gaza into Israel.
On December 27th, Israel began its attack.