Airstrike Kills Senior Hamas Leader; Israel Prepares for Possible Gaza Invasion

Assault on Gaza Strip continues as rockets fall on southern Israel.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 2, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 1 -- An Israeli airstrike on Thursday killed a senior Hamas leader, the first to die in the six-day assault on the Gaza Strip, as Israel readied for a possible ground invasion that military officials said could come at any moment.

Several members of the Hamas leader's family were also killed in the strike, which obliterated a house in the densely packed Jabalya refugee camp north of Gaza City. By late Thursday, the Palestinian death toll was 412, according to health officials in the strip.

Hamas rockets, meanwhile, continued to fly deep into Israel, with one striking an eight-story apartment building in the coastal city of Ashdod. There were no major injuries.

Israel's offensive in Gaza, which began last Saturday, has been carried out exclusively by air and by sea. After a day of heavy rain, the weather improved Thursday, and military analysts said Israeli tanks and other vehicles massed on Gaza's border could more easily enter the territory.

"The forces are there, and they're ready for anything," said an Israeli military spokeswoman, Maj. Avital Leibovich.

Israel's exact objectives in Gaza remain unclear. Israeli military officials have said they are determined to substantially reduce Hamas's rocket fire. Analysts expect Israel to seek a truce with Hamas on terms more favorable to the Jewish state than the ones under the six-month deal brokered by Egypt that expired in mid-December.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Thursday floated the idea of using international monitors, or even armed forces, to ensure that any future cease-fire holds. Israel has indicated it would welcome unarmed international observers.

Although Israel rejected a cease-fire proposal this week, there were signs Thursday that it was stepping up its diplomatic efforts. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni traveled to France, where officials have been leading an international campaign to persuade Israel and Hamas to hold their fire.

But there is pressure within Israel for the government to continue its campaign, and perhaps topple Hamas altogether. That would almost certainly require a ground operation, which would be likely to raise the death toll substantially on both sides.

"There is no way to take Hamas out without going into Gaza. The problem is the price," said Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli major general who headed the military's research and assessment division. "My feeling is that we should do it. All the other players in the region are wondering why we are hesitating if we are so strong."

Already, the air campaign has made this the bloodiest conflict in Gaza since Israel seized the territory in 1967. Precision-guided missile strikes have taken a heavy toll on Hamas's police force and its rocket-launching squads. More than 60 civilians have also been killed, according to United Nations estimates.

Hamas rocket fire has killed four Israelis since the offensive began, three of them civilians.

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