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Doubts Mount About Israel's Targeting of Militants in Gaza

Amid signs that the campaign against Hamas will intensify, concerned observers foresee not only more casualties but a possible quagmire.

March 11, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY — One night, it might be a midnight raid by Israeli troops to arrest an elderly Islamic cleric; on another, the thunderous blast of a suicide bomber's home being blown up. Or it might be a precision daylight strike with helicopter-fired missiles that cuts a car and its occupants to pieces. Or the deafening echo of tank shells ringing through the cinderblock warren of a crowded refugee camp.

For nearly a month now, Israel has been waging its most concerted military campaign in memory against the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas -- a battle that is being fought primarily on the radical group's home turf, the gritty urban neighborhoods and tumbledown villages of the Gaza Strip.

Since Feb. 16, Israel has killed at least two senior Hamas figures and nearly a dozen lesser activists, arrested scores of fugitives, temporarily occupied a dune-filled swath of northern Gaza and repeatedly sent tanks, helicopters and snipers into the mazelike alleys and mosque-lined thoroughfares of areas that are considered Hamas strongholds.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated that the drive against Hamas will intensify. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declared over the weekend that Hamas, particularly in Gaza, has become "an unrestrained monster of terrorism."

"There is a fear it will keep getting stronger and stronger and control everything in the Gaza Strip," he said.

But within Israel as well as overseas, alarms are being raised about the campaign's mounting cost in Palestinian civilian lives -- particularly during this volatile time of countdown to a possible U.S. war with Iraq.

Some observers are warning that Israel could find itself drawn into a quagmire in Gaza reminiscent of its long and bloody occupation of southern Lebanon, and are expressing doubts that this ongoing display of military might is dealing Hamas' shadowy infrastructure a real or lasting blow.

"I think Israel is not taking into consideration the full price that might be involved in a campaign of this type against Hamas," said Shaul Mishal, a Tel Aviv University professor who has long studied the group and its tactics. Sharon's government, he said, "is missing the important strategic dimension of all this."

Hamas, whose suicide attacks have killed hundreds of people during nearly 2 1/2 years of fighting, struck again last week with a bus bombing in the northern port city of Haifa that killed 16 people besides the bomber, many of them students.

In the wake of Israel's "targeted killing" last week of one of the group's leading ideologues -- Ibrahim Makadmeh, who died along with three bodyguards when Israeli helicopter gunships obliterated his car with missiles -- Hamas threatened to begin assassinating Israeli political leaders, including members of parliament.

"Israel has opened a new front in this battle, and it will find the consequences terrible," said Abdulaziz Rantisi, one of the group's senior political leaders.

In Gaza, where Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen have been fighting pitched battles several times a week amid ramshackle homes jammed together, the civilian toll has been heavy.

More than 90 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the year, according to Israeli human rights groups. A precise breakdown of civilians and combatants is impossible, but civilians are thought to account for at least a third of the dead, who in recent weeks have included a Palestinian woman who was nine months pregnant and at least five children under age 16.

In an editorial headlined "Senseless Killings," the Israeli daily Haaretz charged last week that army operations in Gaza were being carried out with "reckless abandon." Twice last week, after raids in Gaza that killed 22 people, the White House urged Israel to exercise greater care to avoid harming innocent Palestinians.

Since its inception in the late 1980s, Hamas has been inextricably linked to Gaza. The movement was born here, coalescing around a few charismatic Muslim preachers like Sheik Ahmed Yassin, together with a hard core of young fighters then waging the Palestinians' first intifada, or uprising.

Here in its heartland, Hamas' prestige and popularity are part of the landscape.

Its slogans dominate Gaza's graffiti-daubed walls, crowding out the colorful murals of rival groups. Enormous crowds turn out for its rallies and funeral marches. Posters of Hamas shahids, or martyrs, adorn schoolroom walls. At night, the group's self-appointed sentries -- masked men in camouflage uniforms cradling AK-47s -- patrol the darkened streets of cities and towns.

Yassin, the group's spiritual leader, is a revered public figure. Paralyzed since a childhood accident, he holds court from his wheelchair while devout young followers gently adjust his white head scarf. All of the female journalists who interview him are required to don an all-enveloping chador.

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