Hamas Pulling Back Into Crowded Cities, Beckoning Israelis

At least three rockets were fired from Lebanon, and Israel responded with a few artillery shells. The exchange threatened to open a second front as Israel continues its offensive against the militant group Hamas on its southern border. Video by AP
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 8, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 7 -- When thousands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers poured into the Gaza Strip on Saturday night, Hamas pulled back.

Rather than stand and fight against the Middle East's strongest army, the Islamist movement opted for a tactical withdrawal, with its fighters melting away into the strip's sprawling cities and refugee camps, according to Gaza residents and Israeli military analysts and officers.

Now, Hamas appears to be daring the Israeli troops to follow.

"They're hitting here and there with antitank missiles and mortars. Overall, though, they're not confronting the Israeli presence in Gaza," said retired Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. "They're challenging the Israeli military to enter the built-up areas."

For Israel, the temptation to move in is great: After 12 days of air-, sea- and land-based attacks that have weakened the Islamist movement's capabilities, Israeli leaders are weighing whether now is the time to try to deal a death blow to Hamas. That, analysts say, would require an expanded ground operation in the twisting alleys of Gaza's main population centers.

But the risks of broadening the campaign are high. Until now, Israeli casualties have been lighter than the military had expected. Six Israeli soldiers have died in five days of ground operations, although only two were killed by Palestinians. The four others died as a result of "friendly fire" incidents.

Analysts say that unleashing ground forces in Gazan cities and refugee camps would almost certainly allow Hamas to launch a campaign of urban warfare featuring sniper fire, suicide attacks and car bombs. The death toll would rise on both sides when Israel is already under international pressure to end its offensive. Palestinian health officials say more than 680 people have been killed in Gaza since the operation began, about a third of them women and children, according to the United Nations.

For the time being at least, Israel has resisted. Instead, military commanders have ordered ground troops to tighten their grip on less-populated parts of the strip that had long been used for launching rockets, while Israeli warplanes and helicopters continue to pound suspected hideouts from the air. Hamas fighters, meanwhile, are lying low in homes, bunkers and tunnels, military experts say, awaiting the chance to spring their traps.

The divergent tactics reflect the asymmetrical nature of the war in Gaza and the vastly different goals of each side.

For Hamas -- an Iranian-backed movement that has no formal army but has committed itself to attacking Israel with whatever weapons it can muster -- the objective is to survive and to show the world that it continues to engage. Even though Hamas fighters largely have avoided battling Israeli soldiers, they keep firing rockets into southern Israel. More than 20 were launched Wednesday. Rockets from Gaza have killed three Israeli civilians and one soldier since Israel launched its offensive Dec. 27, but no one since the ground campaign began. Hamas has also fired mortar shells at soldiers, but Israeli hospital officials say they have seen relatively few gunshot wounds.

"Their objective is to show that their resistance can't be broken," said Martin van Creveld, professor emeritus of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Whatever the outcome, they're going to say, 'We won.' They're going to say, 'We were attacked by a vastly superior force, and the rockets kept coming.' " More than before, however, the rockets are now coming from the cities and the refugee camps, where most of Gaza's 1.5 million people live.

In the first hours of Israel's ground offensive, troops seized open areas east and north of Gaza City that had long been favored by rocket-launching fighters because of the unobstructed views of southern Israel.

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