Hamas remains defiant despite pounding

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

Khaled Omar/AP
In ruins: A Gazan woman carried a mattress Monday near the Rafah border with Egypt that has been hit by heavy Israeli shelling.

Israeli forces continued to bombard the homes of Hamas leaders on Monday as the war in the Gaza Strip entered its 17th day. So far Israel says that at least 300 militants are among the more than 900 Palestinians killed.

But Hamas insists that it has not been significantly hurt – tactically speaking – by the onslaught. Government offices and tunnels have been destroyed. Its leaders are pinned down, unable to move freely or show their faces in public or even communicate on cellphones that can be tracked by the Israeli army. Israel recently killed Amir Mansi, commander of Hamas's Gaza rocket division, and its stream of Qassams has dropped 50 percent since the assault began. But it is still able to launch rockets at Israel.

Has Israel decimated the Hamas leadership – and eroded its support among Gazans? Are its senior political chiefs based in Syria calling the shots and prolonging a battle that war-weary Gazans would increasingly like to see ended?

Inside Gaza, relief is needed immediately; rebuilding could take five years. Hamas in Gaza sent a three-man delegation to Cairo to work on reaching a deal. But Hamas leaders from abroad have taken a harder line, indicating that it would rather fight until the last man than agree to a cease-fire that doesn't meet its demands.

Khaled Mashaal, the Syria-based political leader of Hamas and the man who holds more sway than any of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, says that Hamas will only agree to a truce if all border crossings are open. He rejects any new measures to prevent the smuggling of additional weapons into Gaza.

Mr. Mashaal said Monday that Hamas won't accept "any discussion" about restricting its possession of weapons, adding, "No one has the right to limit the right of our people to look for a rifle to defend ourselves."

Israel, meanwhile, says that Hamas has been seriously damaged and may be close to agreeing to the Egyptian-brokered deal. It told reporters that Hamas's military wing is in disarray and falling apart.

"Whether Hamas is weakened or not, and certainly, it must have been weakened structurally very seriously in the last few weeks, Hamas is saying in terms of its spirit, it is not going to be destroyed. And the indication of that for them is the continued launch of missiles," says Maha Azzam, an expert on Hamas and Political Islam at London's Chatham House.

"It doesn't mean that Hamas as an organization wouldn't be ready to come to some kind of cease-fire agreement, so it can survive as an organization," Ms. Azzam says. But the heavy losses Hamas has sustained, she says, makes it look more heroic in the eyes of many across the Muslim world. "Although continued bombardment of civilians poses a problem of Hamas, they can say as Hamas, we're never going to succumb."

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.]

"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.

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