What's at stake in the current escalated conflict between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel is the issue of freedom - operational freedom: Hamas's operational freedom to inexorably build up its strength and secure its hold on Gaza, move on to take over the West Bank and ultimately defeat Israel... and Israel's operational freedom to stop it. The upsurge in rocket attacks over the past five days, and the extension of Hamas's targets past Sderot and its environs to Ashkelon, came in the immediate aftermath of an Israel Air Force attack on two vehicles in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis last Wednesday. All five of those killed in the IAF strike were members of Hamas's Izzadin Kassam Brigades, three were said to have been "senior operatives," and they had reportedly been closely tracked since returning from abroad - Syria, Lebanon and Iran, according to the IDF - where they had been trained to carry out an attack on a major Israeli target. The escalated Hamas fire, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, noted on Channel 1 on Sunday evening, began "after we hit the five." Hamas, he added, "wants to impose an untenable reality on us... It wants to send the message: Israel will not act in Gaza." Whichever "major target" was in the sights of that Hamas cell in Khan Yunis, the notion of Israel being deterred from acting to thwart such an attack because of a fear of the kind of rocket and missile onslaught it has since endured, Gilad made plain, is unthinkable. So the message Israel has been attempting to convey to Hamas, in return, he said, is "Actually, we can stop you. And if you don't put a halt to the rocket attacks, you could lose your control of Gaza." Hamas, in Gilad's assessment, certainly wants a cease-fire now - a cease-fire that would enable it to strengthen its already much-improved military capability in Gaza and thus ensure no return to the rule of Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority there; a cease-fire that would enable it to look to expand its strength to the West Bank; a cease-fire that would equip it to fight Israel more effectively at a later stage. A cease-fire under those conditions, Gilad made plain, would be unacceptable to Israel. At present, Gilad made plain, Israel is not embarked upon a military operation designed to end Hamas's reign over Gaza - "not that we're opposed to bringing down Hamas," he quickly clarified. For now, he elaborated, the IDF is acting specifically to halt the rocket fire. But later this week, the security cabinet is expected to discuss the Defense Ministry's operational plan for weakening, and even toppling Hamas - with all its military, diplomatic and economic components and repercussions. Hamas's cease-fire parameters are both untenable for Israel and unlikely to change. So long as that remains the case, and even if this round of conflict ends indecisively, therefore, it would seem as though an Israeli military assault that is designed to bring down Hamas is only a matter of time.