The escalating conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip puts Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi in a tight spot. His reaction could shape how large the conflagration grows.

Mursi's supporters were hostile to Israel even before it launched air strikes today on Gaza, a small slice of land between the two countries. Among those killed was Ahmed Jabari, the military chief of Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mursi emerged. The raids are bound to renew calls in Egypt to sever relations with Israel.

At the same time, Mursi is eager to get Egypt on better economic footing. Accordingly, he can scarcely afford to be so combative toward Israel as to alienate the U.S., on whom Egypt depends for $1.5 billion in annual aid, forgiveness of $1 billion in debt and support for a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

What's more, Egypt has its own problems with Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007. Illegal tunnels from Gaza into Egypt have fueled criminality in Egypt's Sinai peninsula and enabled terrorists to slip inside, culminating in an August attack by masked gunmen on an Egyptian border post in which 16 soldiers died.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has already spoken up, saying in a statement, "The brutal aggression on Gaza is proof that Israel has not learned yet that Egypt has changed." The Egyptian people, it said, "will not accept the attack on Gaza."

Israel's strikes may have been brutal, but they were not unprovoked. In the preceding week, militants based in Gaza launched more than 150 rockets into Israel. That may explain why a statement from Egypt's foreign ministry was more moderate, saying "such an escalation from the Israeli side is a dangerous move" that could "ignite the situation."

Naturally, Hamas has vowed to exact revenge for Jabari's death. Since Mursi came to power in July, the organization has looked to the Egyptian leader for support and encouragement. He would serve Egyptians and Gazans by denying Hamas that now.

When it comes to escalation, Hamas can't possibly keep pace with its adversary. Israeli officials have already suggested the air raids were just the start of a larger operation. In response to rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel in 2008, Israeli forces launched a three-week campaign in Gaza that claimed as many as 1,400 Palestinian lives.

(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

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