GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Faced last week with yet another scene of terror and devastation inflicted by Palestinian suicide bombers, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an all-out war against the largest Palestinian militant group, Hamas.
Top Hamas leaders are now in hiding in the Gaza Strip after surviving three assassination attempts, and some of the organization's cells and bomb-making facilities in the West Bank and have been destroyed in Israeli commando raids.
But the two suicide bombings on Tuesday that killed 15 people have raised questions about Israel's counter-terror strategy and whether it has only hardened the dedication of the Hamas faithful without significantly stunting the group's offensive capabilities.
"Up until (Tuesday night) the official version in the security establishment was that Hamas' capabilities for carrying out a severe attack had been seriously harmed. We were wrong," said Israeli journalist Ben Caspit in a front-page article in the daily Ma'ariv on Wednesday. "Hamas is losing infra- structure, fighters, planners, leaders and engineers but accumulating suicide attackers."
The resilience of Hamas stems from its combined social and military nature, and its grassroots appeal makes it the greatest threat to Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, its leaders say.
Hamas, which in Arabic means "zeal," has the largest armed faction fighting Israel for a separate Palestinian state. At the same time, it also runs the largest charity network for poor Palestinians.
The group's military wing, called Izzedin al-Qassam, has claimed responsibility for more than half of the 102 suicide attacks in the last three years of violence that has killed more than 850 Israelis and 2,800 Palestinians. Israel says Hamas has killed 412 people since September 2000.
The U.S. government has declared Hamas a terrorist organization and agrees with Israel that there is no difference between the two wings. On Aug. 22, the Bush administration froze the assets of six senior Hamas leaders and five European-based organizations it says raise money for terror attacks.
Despite an ongoing internal debate about accepting a two-state solution, Hamas still officially rejects the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. It also has denounced the peace process started in 1993 and the current U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for reciprocal moves by Israel and the Palestinian Authority toward ending the violence and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.
Abdul Aziz Rantisi, the No. 2 Hamas leader in Gaza who was the target of a failed Israeli assassination attempt in July, said the group hasn't given up what he termed the "revolutionary phase" of resistance because he doesn't believe Israel is ready to give up Gaza and the West Bank for a Palestinian state. Until it does, all Israelis are fair game, he said.
"This is a war. We are still at war," Rantisi told Cox Newspapers during the funeral for another Hamas leader killed in August in an Israeli helicopter attack. "The end is nowhere in sight . . . because the Israelis chose Sharon as their leader and Sharon does not want peace with (Palestinians)."
The leaders of Hamas learned much of tactical know-how in Lebanon. In 1982, Israel temporarily exiled 400 Hamas leaders to that incubator of Islamic revolutionary fighters. By the time they were allowed back to Gaza, the Hamas leaders learned organizational and fighting techniques still in use today.
Rank-and-file members say they join Hamas rather than other factions fighting Israeli military occupation because it has proven successful in transforming latent Palestinian anger, frustration and hopelessness into a blunt and effective weapon.
"Hamas isn't delicate like a rose. It is hardy, like the cactus in Gaza, like the people in Gaza. Its roots are deep in the ground. You can cut off the head, but the plant will grow back," said Muntasir Ahmed, 26, a student at Gaza's Islamic University and Hamas member.
Such convictions aren't easily dismissed. Although Israel has had some success in recruiting spies in armed factions such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, it has made little progress in efforts to penetrate the disciplined Hamas cells in order to head off suicide attacks or find its munitions warehouses, Israeli intelligence officials say.
This failure to penetrate the group and undermine it from within has made military reprisals the principal option for the Sharon government to act against it.
Sharon, a retired army general, has approved a mixture of commando raids on the West Bank to destroy what Israel calls the "terrorist infrastructure" like bomb factories and munitions storehouses, as well as a controversial policy of "targeted killings" against Hamas leaders based in Gaza.
The West Bank operations have resulted in well-publicized operational successes. The army earlier this summer said that its attacks killing major Hamas cell leaders in Hebron, Nablus and Jenin crippled the group and have restricted its ability to send suicide bombers to Israel.
The assassination policy has been less decisive. Of four tries by Israeli helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter planes to kill the leaders of Hamas, only one attempt succeeded. The other times the three men, including the wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of the group, 68-year-old Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, escaped with only minor injuries.
The targeted killings have whipped up rage among all Palestinian fighters, not just Hamas. Israel's emphasis on destroying Hamas has given the group more fuel for their fire, said political analyst Ghazal Hamid.
"By targeting Hamas, not (Islamic) Jihad or al-Aqsa (Martyrs' Brigade), the Israelis are sending a message of whom they fear. They think that if they destroy Hamas, the others will also wither away. But the tactics are not working against Hamas. That it has succeeded in making Israel fear it is the best weapon Hamas can ask for," said Hamid, the managing editor for The Message weekly newspaper in Gaza.