“Israel doesn’t want to eliminate Hamas”
“Everybody is afraid of what’s next,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in Cairo, predicting that the rockets fired at Tel Aviv and, on Friday, at Jerusalem, would provoke a rerun of Israel’s ground invasion four years ago.
Mr. Abusada and Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s intelligence service, both said there is no clear endgame to the conflict, since Israel neither wants to re-engage in Gaza nor to eliminate Hamas and leave the territory to the chaos of more militant factions. “Ultimately,” Mr. Halevy said, “both sides want Hamas to remain in control, strange as it sounds.”
But Mr. Abusada cautioned that “there is no military solution to the Gaza problem,” saying: “There has to be a political settlement at the end of this. Without that, this conflict is just going to go on and on.”
In Cairo, a senior official of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group allied with President Mohamed Morsi, said he was working furiously on Saturday to secure a cease-fire. Mr. Morsi met with the Turkish premiere, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while Egypt’s foreign minister huddled with the Qatari prince and its intelligence chief sat with Khaled Meshaal, the chief of Hamas’s political wing, Egyptian media reported.
Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007 but is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, wants to turn its Rafah crossing with Egypt into an open, free-trade zone, and for Israel to withdraw from the 1,000-foot buffer it patrols on Gaza’s northern and eastern borders. The Brotherhood official said that the Israeli side of the talks remained “the sticking point,” though he would not be specific about the issues.
Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Asia that the president had spoken daily with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel since the crisis began, as well as to Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Morsi.
“They have the ability to play a constructive role in engaging Hamas and encouraging a process of de-escalation,” Mr. Rhodes said of the Turkish and Egyptian leaders. Describing rocket fire coming from Gaza as “the precipitating factor for the conflict,” he added, “We believe Israel has a right to defend itself and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics that they use in that regard.”
But the Tunisian foreign minister, standing outside Al Shifa Hospital here, told reporters that Israel “has to respect the international law to stop the aggression against the Palestinian people.”
Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, spoke Saturday with the leaders of Germany, Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic, according to a statement from his office.
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of the Israeli military, met with his top commanders and instructed his troops “to continue attacking with full force in the Gaza Strip and to increase the rate of attacks on terrorist targets,” according to a military statement. A senior military official who briefed reporters said Israel had hit nearly 1,000 sites since Wednesday in what he called “intelligence-driven precision strikes,” and described civilian casualties as “regrettable” but unavoidable because the “terrorist infrastructure is embedded inside the population.”
Israel’s stated goals for the operation are reclaiming calm for its residents, deterring further rocket attacks and crippling Hamas’s military capabilities. The expansion of the assault to government buildings suggested Israel may be running out of targets relating to the long-range rockets that present the greatest threat, but Mark Regev, Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman, played down the idea that new attacks represented a shift.
Hamas “makes no distinction between its terrorist military machine and the government structure,” he said. “We have seen Hamas consistently using so-called civilian facilities for the purposes of hiding their terrorist military machine, including weapons.”
While Israeli domestic support for the offensive remained strong, there were the beginnings of an internal debate about when and how to bring the operation to an end.
Yisrael Ziv, a former head of operations for the Israeli military, said Saturday that as the number of targets reachable from the air shrinks, Israel may soon “have to go in on the ground,” but cautioned that move presents greater risks. “A few bad luck incidents can change the whole picture,” he said on Israeli television. “You have to know how far not to go.”
But Tzachi Hanegbi, a former chairman of the Israeli Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he thought “we are in a very early stage of the operation,” adding: “I wouldn’t start talking about exit strategies at this point.”
The 4 a.m. strike on Mr. Haniyeh’s office was as much a psychological blow as a tactical one. A singed copy of the official Palestinian book of laws lay amid the huge pile of rubble the building was reduced to, along with datebooks and personnel records listing the bank accounts for depositing police officers’ paychecks. Mr. Haniyeh’s gray-bearded face beamed from one page in Hamas’s signature green: the cover of a 2008 booklet declaring “the government’s achievements despite the obstacles.”
Just before 10 a.m., a security official who worked at the building and asked to be identified only as Abu El Abed planted a Palestinian flag in the rubble, declaring, “We will rebuild this place as we have rebuilt others.
“Every structure that is demolished or destroyed is a big loss,” he said. “But the blood of anybody wounded is more important than any structure.”
Besides the prime minister’s office and police and security buildings, the military on Saturday bombed smuggling tunnels under Rafah and carried out what it described as pinpoint strikes of Hamas commanders. One such attack flattened the home of Ibrahim Salah, head of public relations for the Hamas Interior Ministry, in the Jabaliya refugee camp, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Mr. Salah and his family were not in the house, but Hamas officials said the strike wounded 30 neighbors and damaged or destroyed several of the surrounding homes.
Dozens of people, many of them children, swarmed the rubble pile, where clothing and a bottle of detergent sat along with remnants of lights and furnishings. Hassam Al Dadah, 41, loaded a truck with mattresses, blankets, a refrigerator, couch cushions and a child’s doll. Inside the home where he had lived for three years, several women cleared out what was left in the kitchen, taking canisters of rice and coffee and an orange tank of cooking gas, while one stuffed papers from a dust-covered bookcase in a bedroom into a pillowcase.
Mr. Dadah said his five children, three girls and two boys ages 6 to 14, were all being treated for wounds at the hospital, having been covered by debris in their beds when the bomb struck around 6 a.m. The truck packed with belongings was bound for a storage area but Mr. Dadah said he did not know where his family would spend the night.
“I’m a new refugee,” said Mr. Al Dadah, a teacher at a United Nations school ,who like more than half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people was already classified as a refugee because his family fled the Ashkelon area when Israel became a state in 1948. “I don’t have any place to go to.”
Jodi Rudoren reported from Gaza City and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem. Reporting was contributed by Fares Akram and Tyler Hicks from the Gaza Strip, Carol Sutherland and Iritz Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem, and David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh from Cairo.“