As It Continues Attacks on Gaza Strip, Israel Is Poised for a Long Fight

Death toll rises as Israel assaults targets in Hamas-run Gaza Strip, including a security compound and a group of smugglers' tunnels.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 29, 2008

JERUSALEM, Dec. 28 -- Israeli warplanes struck a broad array of targets in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Sunday, hitting a security compound, a mosque, the Islamic University, a television station and a network of smugglers' tunnels along the border with Egypt as Hamas fired fresh volleys of rockets into Israel. The Palestinian death toll approached 300 after two days of violence, making this the deadliest operation in Gaza since Israel seized control of the coastal territory from Egypt in 1967.

Israeli officials said that they were prepared for an extended campaign in Gaza, possibly including ground forces, and that the goal is to break Hamas's military capacity. "We will continue to attack as long as they fire," said a senior Israeli military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Israel's military, he said, intends to pressure Hamas to the point where the Islamist movement either "runs out of will or runs out of capability to launch more attacks."

Israeli officials said they were choosing targets that they believed were being used for weapons manufacturing or storage. The Israeli cabinet called up 6,500 reserve forces Sunday, and troops stationed along the border with Gaza were on "the highest level of alert," according to Israeli military spokesman Capt. Benjamin Rutland.

Hamas officials said Sunday that they would continue to fight back, and they called for suicide operations to counter Israeli military strikes. Palestinian fighters launched more than 20 additional rockets Sunday, including two that reached deep into Israeli territory, falling just short of the port city of Ashdod. The rockets, which the Israeli military said were Katyushas, traveled about 20 miles, significantly further than previous rockets from Gaza.

Although the intensity of attacks was slightly lower than it had been on Saturday, Israeli F-16s remained a steady presence in the sky above Gaza on Sunday, dropping heavy, precision-guided weaponry on dozens of targets. The attacks sent plumes of thick, black smoke into the Mediterranean sky. On the ground, dozens of buildings -- including a jail where Palestinian prisoners had been kept locked inside -- were reduced to heaps of rubble. Near midnight, Israeli bombs struck the Islamic University of Gaza, the territory's primary center for higher education and a key recruiting ground for Hamas.

Ill-equipped hospitals across Gaza were overwhelmed by the massive influx of patients, with doctors saying they have treated more than 1,300 Palestinians for injuries.

While Israeli officials said that the vast majority of those killed were active in Hamas's military operations, Palestinian medical officials in Gaza said that more than two dozen women and children were among the dead. Exact numbers were impossible to verify. Israel has barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza since the operation began Saturday.

Israel says Hamas provoked Saturday's surprise attacks by firing hundreds of rockets into southern Israel since a six-month-old cease-fire expired Dec. 19. There were no fatalities from the rockets during the week, but an Israeli man was killed Saturday when a rocket struck an apartment building in Netivot.

Speaking on the NBC News program "Meet the Press," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insisted that Israel does not intend a wholesale takeover of Gaza, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians. "Our goal is not to reoccupy" the strip, she said.

Israel pulled out its ground forces from Gaza and withdrew from its settlements in the narrow coastal strip in 2005, but since then has launched frequent military raids inside the territory and maintains a tight grip on Gaza entry and exit points. Hamas, which swept Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, has been in control internally in Gaza since June 2007, when its fighters forced out security forces loyal to the more moderate government of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas and allied groups such as Islamic Jihad have used Gaza as a launching pad for thousands of rocket attacks against southern Israel in recent years. Since the 2005 Israeli withdrawal, 11 Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from the strip. Israel has responded with tight sanctions that have kept out all but the most basic supplies of food and fuel. As a result, the Gazan economy has almost completely collapsed. Israel allowed some humanitarian supplies into Gaza on Sunday, but aid groups have warned of a deepening crisis unless restrictions are eased.

Much of what's available in Gaza -- from food to weapons -- is smuggled in through an extensive network of underground tunnels to Egypt. As darkness fell Sunday, Israel said it had destroyed 40 of those tunnels in airstrikes, although it is believed that many more remain.

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