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.
Mahmoud, a resident of the northern Gazan town of Beit Lahiya, said that the Israelis have commandeered his neighborhood and that there is no sign of Hamas.
"I used to see Hamas launching rockets," said Mahmoud, who spoke by telephone and would not give his last name. "Now I only see Israelis. There is no resistance in my area."
But there is elsewhere in Gaza. Teams of rocket launchers have moved to the vast urban centers, residents say, creating a dilemma for Israel over how to respond.
On Tuesday, troops reported rocket fire from a U.N.-operated school that was being used as a shelter in the center of the Jabalya refugee camp. They returned fire, and killed 40 people. Israel has said Hamas operatives were among the dead; Palestinian medical officials say the majority were women, children and male civilians.
John Ging, the top U.N. Relief and Works Agency official in Gaza, on Wednesday challenged Israeli reports that fire came from the school. He said the U.N. staff at the facility assured him that "there were no militants in the school. . . . I'm very confident that there was no militant activity in the school, and if anybody has evidence to the contrary, we would be very anxious to have it."
Israel accuses Hamas of deliberately attacking from populated areas to drive up civilian casualty figures and stoke anger toward Israel in the Muslim world. But Hamas says it has little choice. There are no military bases in Gaza from which to fight, and the movement's members do not live apart from the rest of the population.
"They don't see themselves as being separate from the Palestinian people. They say, 'We're fighting among our people for our people's freedom,' " said Nassar Ibrahim, a Palestinian journalist based in Bethlehem who does not belong to Hamas.
Israel has said that the goal of its operation is to destroy either Hamas's capacity or its will to fight. So far, Israeli war planners say they have dealt the group a heavy blow, destroying much of its infrastructure and killing large numbers of its members with strikes from F-16 fighters, Apache helicopters, aerial drones, warships and tanks.
But the movement's leadership, which has been in hiding since before the offensive began, remains.
Israel's objective now is to raise the pressure on top Hamas officials and to destroy as much of the group's arsenal as it can before international pressure forces the military to stop. "Time is the name of the game. We need time to put more pressure on them," said a former senior military official who was authorized to speak on behalf of the Israel Defense Forces, but not by name.
The official said ground forces had surrounded Gaza's main population centers and were methodically tightening the noose. Going in is a definite possibility, he said, but so is a prolonged siege.
"When we were in Beirut in 1982, it took three months to force Fatah to give up," said the official, referring to the first Lebanon war, when the Palestine Liberation Organization refused to give in despite being pummeled by Israeli attacks.
Israel has said it intends to force Hamas to stop firing rockets or at least significantly reduce the number. But pressure is also building within Israel for the military to use this opportunity to carry out regime change in Gaza.
Hamas has been in charge there since June 2007, when its fighters routed gunmen loyal to the rival Fatah party. Israel, which pulled its troops and settlements out of Gaza in 2005, has enforced a strict economic embargo on the territory for the past 19 months. Lipkin-Shahak, who was Israel's military chief in the late 1990s, said he hopes Hamas halts its rocket fire before Israel decides to escalate.
"The best thing for both sides will be the end of fighting as soon as possible," he said. "The longer it goes on, the more casualties there will be on both sides, and the end result will be the same -- unless the IDF is forced to occupy the whole Gaza Strip. We don't want to do that. But it's not impossible."
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondents Reyham Abdel Kareem in Gaza City and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.