Saud Abu Ramadan, Jonathan Ferziger
December 31, 2008 - 1:00am

Amid the smoldering ruins of European-built ministries demolished by air raids, Hamas leaders say they are confident of their ability to outlast the Israeli military onslaught in the Gaza Strip.

“Our people are willing to pay the price and resist this brutality,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a telephone interview from Gaza. “Israel will eventually weaken, and the popularity of Hamas will only grow.”

Even as top leaders including Ismael Haniya, deposed by the Palestinian Authority as prime minister, have gone into hiding, Hamas militants continued to pound Israel with rockets, displaying improved range and accuracy. In the deepest strike yet into Israeli territory, a rocket last night hit the city of Beersheba, 40 kilometers (24 miles) from Gaza.

Officials of the militant Islamic group, who resumed firing rockets after the Dec. 19 expiration of a cease-fire, are banking on what they believe is Israel’s fear of sustaining serious casualties if it launches a ground offensive and its susceptibility to criticism from other countries.

“Israel is subject to internal pressures as well as international criticism that will limit its ability to sustain a long war,” said Adnan Abu Amer, a political analyst who runs the Al-Yamman research organization in Gaza. “People in Gaza are different. They’re poor, but they’re used to suffering, and they will maintain their solidarity with Hamas.”

‘Hurt Very Badly’

Other analysts, though, say Hamas may have overplayed its hand, and won’t recover soon from the most intense bombardment of Gaza in more than 40 years. Israel’s aerial strikes, which were planned over at least six months, have devastated the Hamas military infrastructure, said Jonathan Fighel, a lecturer at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel.

“I think they miscalculated, and they’ve been hurt very badly,” said Fighel, a former Israeli military governor in the West Bank.

Yesterday, the fourth day of bombardment by Israeli war planes, Defense Minister Ehud Barak vowed to expand the operation until Hamas is crippled and no longer a threat. Israel is considering a French proposal for a 48-hour cease-fire, an Israeli defense official said on condition of anonymity.

At least 360 Palestinians have been killed and 1,400 wounded since Israel started air strikes, according to the Palestinian emergency services office in Gaza City. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have died from Palestinian rocket attacks since then, the army said.

Pillars of Smoke

Israel began its aerial campaign on Dec. 27 after Hamas said it wouldn’t renew the six-month cease-fire that had been brokered by Egypt. Hamas, an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, is designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Pillars of smoke again billowed into the skies over Gaza yesterday as the Israeli Air Force leveled police stations and other government buildings run by Hamas since it seized control of the coastal strip 18 months ago.

A compound landscaped with flower beds and housing the finance, foreign and labor ministries, which were built 10 years ago with millions of dollars in EU donations, was reduced to rubble in a pre-dawn air strike.

Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and other medical facilities across the 40-kilometer long coastal territory were overwhelmed as ambulances delivered the Palestinian dead and relatives snatched the bodies for funerals that were rushed amid frequent Israeli attacks.

‘We Will Win’

“In the end we will win because support for Hamas is based in the heart of every believer,” said Ali Arafat, 26, a student at the Islamic University in Gaza City. Israel bombed the campus Dec. 28.

Hamas spokesman Barhoum likened the current struggle to the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

“A war that destroyed everything in Lebanon did not succeed in stopping the resistance,” he said. “Instead, its popularity and strength increased, and the same thing will happen here.”


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