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Hamas remains defiant despite pounding

The Gaza militants embrace 'heroic role' as bombardment continues.

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In an interview in Damascus, Mr. Mashaal's deputy, Musa Abu Marzook, said that Israel's war in Gaza has only served to increase Hamas's popularity, not detract from it. And he said that Israel's real goal was not stopping rocket fire, but ending Hamas rule in Gaza. [Editor's note: The original version misstated comments by Musa Abu Marzook regarding the Palestinian Fatah Party.]

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"The real reason for Israel's aggression is to change Hamas's government in the Gaza Strip. They have been thinking about this since Hamas won the elections [in January 2006]," Abu Marzook says. "They failed to lead the people in an uprising against Hamas in the Gaza Strip with the economic embargo. They tried to push Fatah to stand and fight Hamas, but we defeated them in the Gaza Strip. So Israel took action themselves."

Abu Marzook, interviewed last week, said that Hamas had no intention of halting its rocket fire from Gaza. He views these rockets – 14 of which hit Israel on Monday – as just "sending a message" to the Jewish state.

"We are only talking about stopping the aggression from the Israelis against the civilian population in the Gaza Strip. But we are sending a message [by firing rockets]: 'We will not surrender.' We have to fight the Israelis and we will win this battle," he says. "We know we are going to lose a lot of people from our side, but we are going to win, inshallah [God willing]."

"Perhaps it has had quite a beating, but in terms of support in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere, the support is increasing because Hamas is seen as taking on a somewhat heroic role," says Azzam.

Israel began the offensive on Dec. 27, following Hamas's resumption of rocket attacks when a six-month truce ran out on Dec. 19. Since then Hamas can't meet in what were government ministries and other Hamas headquarters, because most such buildings have been destroyed. Hamas leaders who have survived move secretly and have occasional meetings in different locations, but sometimes go days without holding strategy sessions.

Palestinian reporters are afraid to get too close to Hamas leaders for an interview because, as one put it, "They are wanted men. To stand next to them for five minutes is dangerous." Foreign journalists have not been allowed into Gaza for more than two months.

Even the rank-and-file policemen, who 18 months ago were put on the streets by Hamas to convey a sense of law and order, are no longer anywhere to be seen. Those who are out wear plainclothes in order to make it more difficult for the Israeli army to target them – and ultimately, for anyone to distinguish between civilian and military casualties.

Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City, Gaza, and Shane Bauer in Damascus contributed to this report.