'All-Out War' Declared on Hamas

The Bush administration has called again for a "sustainable cease-fire" in the Mideast and demands that Hamas stop its attacks on Israel. Video by AP
By Griff Witte and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

JERUSALEM, Dec. 29 -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared "an all-out war against Hamas" on Monday as fighter jets raked the Gaza Strip with bombs for the third straight day and Palestinian fighters sent dozens of rockets flying deep into Israeli territory.

The Palestinian death toll rose to 364, according to Palestinian medical officials. The Israeli death toll stood at four, including three people killed in rocket fire Monday. One of the rockets hit a bus stop in Ashdod, a coastal community 23 miles north of Gaza, another sign that Hamas is launching longer-range rockets than it did before a six-month truce expired Dec. 19.

Israel sealed off an area around Gaza on Monday, declaring it a "closed military zone," amid indications that the army may be preparing for a ground offensive. Meanwhile, Israeli jets continued to strike targets across the narrow coastal strip, including a security compound and the homes of suspected Hamas operatives.

While previous Israeli assaults on Gaza have pinpointed crews of Hamas rocket launchers and stores of weapons, the attacks that began Saturday have had broader aims than any before. Israeli military officials said Monday that their target lists have expanded to include the vast support network that the Islamist movement relies on to stay in power in the strip. The choice of targets suggests that Israel intends to weaken all the various facets of Hamas rather than just its armed wing.

"There are many aspects of Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel," said a senior Israeli military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Hamas's civilian infrastructure is a very, very sensitive target. If you want to put pressure on them, this is how," said Matti Steinberg, a former top adviser to Israel's domestic security service and an expert on Islamist organizations.

Israel has said its goal in attacking Hamas is to make life secure for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live within range of rockets fired from Gaza. But officials have said they do not want to reoccupy the strip just three years after they withdrew troops and settlements from it.

Hamas on Monday fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel. The three Israelis killed included one person in the Negev community of Nahal Oz, a woman at the bus stop in Ashdod and a construction worker in Ashkelon. Nineteen people have been killed in attacks from Gaza so far this year.

Israelis living in the coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, once believed to be out of range from Gazan rocket fire, spent large parts of Monday in bomb shelters and sent their children to stay with relatives in other parts of the country.

"Today was an awful day," said Sigal Arieli, a mother of three living in Ashkelon. "One rocket landed near our neighborhood pizza restaurant, and another one landed near a children's playground."

Israel has not allowed foreign reporters into Gaza since the operation began Saturday.

In the Israeli offensive, one of the first targets was a police academy, where scores of recruits were preparing to join a security service that Hamas uses to enforce its writ within Gaza. Other targets included government ministries, a Hamas television station, smugglers' tunnels, a seaport and a university building.

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