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Israeli strikes in Gaza risk political win for Hamas

The Islamist militants in Gaza may emerge as a symbol of defiance, much as Hezbollah did in its 2006 war with Israel.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 2008

Protests widen: Palestinian protestors threw stones at Israeli troops Monday on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

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Ashkelon, Israel

After Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite militants emerged claiming victory and exalted across the Arab world. Even its harshest critics praised the group's endurance against overwhelming Israeli force. Today Hezbollah is more powerful – politically and militarily – than ever before.

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As its assault on Gaza militants continues, Israel runs the risk of seeing Hamas emerge in much the same way as Hezbollah did two years ago. Already the deadly strikes have led to a burst of criticism aimed at pro-Western Middle East governments and sparked rallies supporting Hamas in the region and in Europe.

"Although very costly in terms of material and human damage, politically speaking it is strengthening Hamas because of the huge sympathy from it being targeted," says Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority labor minister. "This is being used by political Islamic parties all over the region."

So far the Israeli pummeling of Gaza has obliterated Hamas government and security buildings, pushing the death toll beyond 300. Israeli aircraft destroyed symbols of Hamas power Monday, hitting a target near the home of Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh, a security compound, and a building at Gaza's Islamic University.

Inside Israel, dozens of rockets fell on the city of Ashkelon and the town of Sderot in the morning. Those attacks killed one Arab Israeli construction worker.

On Monday, Israeli troops and tanks also began amassing on the border with Gaza and reserve soldiers were called up for a possible ground invasion, which would undoubtedly see a spike in Palestinian casualties and possibly many Israeli deaths, as well.

In the 2006 conflict in Lebanon – triggered by Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered a massive aerial attack against Hezbollah's headquarters in Beirut and positions in southern Lebanon. The bombardment was followed by a ground invasion.

He declared that the campaign would continue until the battle-hardened Lebanese group was disarmed and dismantled.

But Hezbollah refused to succumb, and continued to pound northern Israel with rockets fired from hidden underground bunkers. A month later, Mr. Olmert was forced to accept a cease-fire that left Hezbollah claiming a "divine victory" and free to rebuild its arsenal. Two and a half years on, Israel estimates Hezbollah has three times the number of rockets it possessed on the eve of the 2006 war.