The military power of Hamas has been weakened and its political leadership is divided over plans for a possible cease-fire, but an Israeli intelligence official said yesterday that the radical group remains dangerous, with 15,000 fighters, tunnels and a sophisticated arsenal of rockets and anti-tank weapons.
The senior official's assessment was delivered in a news briefing on a day when Israeli ground forces and Hamas guerrillas battled fiercely in a southeastern neighborhood of high-rise apartments in Gaza City. Civilians fled as Israeli forces, backed by shelling from warships along the seaside enclave, pushed deeper into the city but appeared to stop short of Hamas strongholds.
The military action came as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia renewed calls for an immediate cease-fire - a prospect that has remained elusive since the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip began Dec. 27. The failure of Arab leaders to stop the bloodshed in Gaza has led to violent street protests across the Middle East.
Israel's push into the Tel Hawwa neighborhood of Gaza City - about a mile from the city center - increased the pressure on Hamas fighters and on humanitarian groups and hospitals coping with rising numbers of homeless and wounded Palestinians. More than 971 Gazans, including 311 children and 76 women, have been killed in 18 days of fighting, according to the United Nations.
Israeli forces invaded Tel Hawwa "and started to shell from the sky and from the ground," said Khader Dahdouh, whose home was badly damaged in a firefight that began after midnight and lasted until dawn. "The resistance fighters were firing rocket-propelled grenades, and the soldiers took cover in nearby villas."
Human Rights Watch and other international organizations have called for Israel to allow civilians to escape the fighting and for humanitarian groups to enter with medical supplies, food, fuel and equipment. Israel said it has allowed 22,000 tons of humanitarian aid into Gaza, but much of the enclave remains without electrical power. Pleas for donations and shelter echo from the loudspeakers of mosques.
The United Nations has reported that at least 60,000 Palestinians have fled their homes. The number of refugees is expected to rise as Israeli forces squeeze Gaza City's outlying neighborhoods to further isolate Hamas militants. Palestinian medical authorities reported that at least 50 Gazans were killed and 150 wounded in yesterday's fighting.
"We don't know the full extent of what's happening inside Gaza because we are blocked [by the Israelis] from getting in," said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But what we are observing is a deeply disturbing disregard for human life."
The Israeli intelligence official, who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity because of security concerns, did not underestimate Hamas but indicated the group had been overwhelmed by 18 days of bombardment. The official said Hamas is not significantly tapping into its caches of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles but is occasionally using suicide bombers as spearheads for its combat missions.
"The level of damage to Hamas' military wing is less than the damage" to its civil infrastructure, the official said. "I think they will try to do their best to hit us, to come up with some symbolic achievement, a suicide operation or the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier."
Hamas officials have said its fighters are resilient, and that its military wing is choosing when it will engage Israeli forces.
But the intelligence official said that Israeli airstrikes had destroyed much of Hamas' rocket-launching capabilities. Two weeks ago, Hamas was firing about 80 missiles a day into southern Israel; that has dropped to about 20 in recent days, and yesterday, only two rockets were reported fired.