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'All-out war' declared on Hamas

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.
Image: Destroyed former office of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
Palestinians stand outside the destroyed former office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on Saturday.Mohammed Abed / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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.

In addition to carrying out attacks against Israel, the Islamist movement serves as the de facto government in Gaza, operates an extensive social services network and exercises considerable control over what is left of Gaza's ramshackle economy.

Maj. Avital Leibovitch, an Israeli defense spokeswoman, confirmed that the military has widened its target list from previous operations, saying Hamas has used ostensibly civilian operations as a cover for military activities. "Anything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target," she said.

The Israeli attacks have struck at some of the most prominent symbols of Hamas power in Gaza.

The territory's uniformed police have taken major hits, with several police compounds destroyed. The police force is tasked with enforcing order internally, not attacking Israel. But the Israeli military has said the police are fair game because they are armed members of Hamas's security structure and some moonlight as rocket launchers.

Another prominent target was the Islamic University of Gaza. Early Monday, warplanes flattened the school's five-story science building. The university was once known as a bastion of support for the mainstream Palestinian Fatah movement, but it gradually fell under Hamas's sway, and many of the movement's top leaders are alumni. Hamas heavily influences the curriculum and uses the campus as a prime recruiting ground.

Leibovitch said the building destroyed by Israeli fire was being used to develop enhanced weaponry for Hamas fighters.

Kamalin Sha'ath, head of the university's trustees council, denied that assertion and accused Israel of trying to ruin Palestinian culture, not just Hamas infrastructure. "This attack shows the real face of Israel, which doesn't want anything for this community," he said.

The smugglers' tunnels, which run beneath the Egyptian border, were another key instrument of Hamas power. On Sunday, Israeli missiles demolished 40 of them, though more are believed to remain.

Hamas has used the tunnels to smuggle in weapons from Iran. But it also allowed, and profited from, an elaborate black market of commercial goods that kept Gaza's economy going despite an Israeli economic blockade.

Amr Hamad, the Gaza-based assistant secretary general of the Palestinian Federation of Industries, said even that flow of supplies may now disappear. "The most basic goods are not available in the shops," he said.

Hamad said he fears that with the economy worsening, people will become even more dependent on Hamas for jobs and handouts. "Most people are just trying to earn their daily bread," he said. "The normal people are suffering. Not the Hamas leaders."

Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University, said that may be the point.

"What they are doing now is like a punishment for [Gazans] accepting Hamas control," Jarbawi said. "They want to leave in the memories of Gazans that Israel is capable whenever it wants of striking hard, and so 'don't attack us with rockets in the future.' "

Israeli officials have, in recent days, pointed hopefully to indications that support for Hamas within Gaza is eroding. Israeli and Palestinian analysts say Israel's strategy appears to be to weaken Hamas enough that the group has no choice but to sign a truce on Israel's terms. But there is a risk that approach could backfire.

Rawiya Shawa, an independent Palestinian legislative council member who lives in Gaza City, said attacks on targets such as mosques and university buildings are uniting the population behind Hamas and neutralizing the internal opposition.

"Hamas has the sympathy of the other groups," Shawa said. "Even the Fatah people are not happy at all at what is happening. This is a savage attack that unites all Palestinians."

Even before the Israeli offensive, organized opposition to Hamas within Gaza was severely limited. In 2006, Hamas won legislative council elections, and a year later, it dissolved a power-sharing agreement with the rival Fatah party. Hamas forced Fatah members out of Gaza at gunpoint, and since then, it has maintained sole control of the strip's government.

The period since the takeover coincided with a surge in rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel has responded with a tight economic blockade and frequent military strikes.

Hamas, which pledged to improve the lives of Palestinians by reducing corruption and providing critically needed social services, has faced a quiet backlash within Gaza from those who say the group's combative relationship with Israel has only brought more suffering to the strip. That simmering resentment was one reason Hamas agreed to a six-month truce with Israel over the summer, although the group did not get the benefit it had expected; Israel declined to open the border crossings because of sporadic rocket fire, and the sense of deprivation among Gaza's 1.5 million residents only deepened.

Hamas leaders -- who have gone into hiding, fearing assassination -- have said they are not interested in another cease-fire. Since Saturday, they have defiantly called on Palestinians to strike back at Israel by whatever means necessary, including suicide attacks.

But Hamas's response has been more limited overall than what Israeli military officials had expected, and they said Monday that their air assault had succeeded in weakening the group's capacity to strike.

"It's not a knockout. But the impact of the attacks is very high," said the senior Israeli military official, who was not authorized to speak for the record.

Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.