By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondents
In a series of blows during the past 24 hours, the most severe since the Israel Defense Forces operation began in the Gaza Strip 20 days ago, Hamas was brought very close to surrender.
It is unlikely that we will see white flags, because the group recognizes that this would have a devastating effect on its image. But the Israeli military pressure has destroyed most of the Palestinian defenses in the heart of Gaza City, a day after the group had to agree in principle to the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire a deal it is not very happy with.
At the start of the fighting, there was talk in the IDF of a Hamas division, trained and funded by Iran, ready to confront an invasion of the Gaza Strip. This division evaporated and it is doubtful whether it ever existed.
The situation as of last night was as follows: Said Sayyam and Salah Abu Shreich, two senior Hamas figures, were killed in an air strike in Jabaliya. The home of another Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, is surrounded. Infantry, armor and special forces are operating in the center of the city, very close to the Hamas “security quarter” southwest of the city, where most of the command and control centers of the group are situated.
Even in the center of the city, Hamas gunmen are opting to avoid direct encounters with the IDF. In most cases they are choosing to escape along with thousands of civilians. The Hamas announcement in Cairo two days ago began the countdown toward a cease-fire.
The head of the political-security bureau at the Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, delivered a positive message to Egypt regarding Cairo’s cease-fire initiative. Israel’s “kitchen-cabinet” still deliberated late into the night, where the Ehud Barak-Tzipi Livni alliance grew tighter in an effort to block the last minute warlike urge of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to continue the offensive.
The army sensed Hamas’ weakness when units left their defensive positions in the Zeytun neighborhood. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi approved the assault and forces reached the center of the city through the gap. On the way, the IDF killed most of the members of a unit comprising militants trained by Iran.
The latest move has is risks. The IDF is constantly concerned that a single mistake may lead to mass killing of Palestinian civilians, or a surprise attack by Hamas that may affect public opinion in Israel. This nearly happened yesterday when UNRWA facilities were hit.
On Wednesday a commando force suffered six soldiers injured when a wall collapsed on them. Another force had destroyed a tunnel and it caused the collapse nearby.
GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant ordered soldiers not to stay in multi-story buildings, fearing the explosion of booby-trapped devices that could cause many casualties.
Meanwhile it seems that at least the Hamas leadership in Gaza has began to fathom the seriousness of its position. Two Hamas leaders in the Strip, Razi Hamad and Ahmed Yusuf, accused the group’s leadership in Damascus of “bringing a terrible disaster on Gaza.”
The two are considered members of the pragmatic wing of the party, and charged the Damascus-based leadership with making a terrible mistake in ordering Hamas to foil the extension of the cease-fire agreement with Israel in December.
However, in Damascus it is not clear that the message has been received. Ramadan Shalah, head of the Islamic Jihad, told Al Jazeera that the Palestinians will continue their resistance in Gaza and the city will not surrender because “victory is imminent.”
The head of the Hamas politburo, Khaled Meshal, who is central in the decision that led to the events in the Strip, spoke in Damascus last night of a Palestinian “victory in Gaza.”
During the speech, delivered live on Al Jazeera, breaking news announced that Said Sayyam and his brother Iyad had been killed in Gaza.
The latest developments have contributed to optimism in Israel. However, those who are still toying with the idea of bringing down Hamas entirely should weigh what is best: a weakened Hamas or complete anarchy in the Strip, with no one in power to threaten or to make indirect agreements with? Gaza can still deteriorate into another Somalia.