On the Ground in Gaza

If Hamas is getting bombed into submission, it doesn't much show. As the bedraggled old bus crosses from Egypt into the Gaza Strip, Ghazi Hamad meets it at the Rafah Gate. Spokesman for the Palestinian government and formerly an aide to the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Hamad is proud to identify himself as a Hamas official. Is he worried about the sort of "F-16 assassinations" that Israel has been handing out? He rolls his eyes skyward and shrugs: "Whatever happens, happens." The group of men at the entrance to the Red Crescent Hospital here in Khan Younis, further north, is quiet and even-tempered; the hospital is so full there isn't even room to shelter a visiting journalist. Only after questioning does it become clear that the gathered men have just lost their homes to air strikes. "Yesterday they destroyed my house," says Hamis Odeh, a driver, "and today I have joined Hamas for the first time."

The calmness of Gaza under fire is striking, almost as if they had expected this and prepared for it long ago. There are no armed Palestinians visible in the streets, but nor are people staying off them. Most places, there's no electricity; but when night falls the lights twinkle on from a thousand small generators. Hamas military spokesmen had openly boasted that they used the previous, six-month-long ceasefire well, preparing underground bunkers and secret tunnels. Gaza's civilians too have been busy, stockpiling food in their homes and fuel for their generators. "Look here," says Hassan (who prefers not to be identified further in case a missile were to find him), pulling back a curtain in his living room; behind it are suitcases, already packed with his family's most precious possessions, warm clothes and emergency food. "If the Israelis come, we can leave on a moment's notice," he says. He is unemotional about it. "Where we will go, who knows, but we are ready." Odeh, the driver in Khan Younis, was one of the lucky ones; someone from the Israeli Defense Forces called him and told him he had five minutes to get out of his house before it was destroyed, he says. His two brothers got no such warning in their homes, and are now dead, he adds matter-of-factly. Odeh gathered the family and fled, just before a drone, probably a Predator, came and fired a single missile that destroyed his four-story building. Palestinians call the drones "zananas", an onomatopoetic coinage, after the sound of its engines. Indeed they do sound like "zananas"; once you know what to listen for, the noise is everywhere. It does seem to coax people over to the lee side of buildings, away from the presumed direction of flight, but otherwise it doesn't seem to make much difference on the ground.

It is hard to see what exactly the Israelis have accomplished so far in their 21-day-long war in Gaza. If the plan was to stop Hamas from firing rockets into southern Israeli towns, it hasn't worked; the rocket firing hasn't ceased for a single day. If it was to smash Hamas by killing its leaders, and reducing its offices and headquarters to rubble, the toll of death and damage is undeniable; the accomplishment, less so. On Thursday, an Israeli rocket found Said Siam, the Hamas interior minister, hiding in his brother's house, and killed him along with four family members and eight followers. "This is not the first time Hamas has lost its leaders, right back to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin [the Hamas founder]," says Hamad. "Hamas has deep roots in this land, we will grow new leaders, we can go on." In the same way, the Hamas TV and radio network goes on. Even after its main transmitters were destroyed, it has continued to broadcast daily reports of the latest mayhem. Al Aqsa TV is slickly produced and unabashedly incendiary, with fresh footage from the hospitals, showing war victims in the midst of CPR or undergoing open-chest surgery on the operating table, and sustained close-ups of blood-splattered toddlers. Periodically, the Israelis try to jam the station, and a sign comes on in Arabic reading, for instance, "Hamas is afraid that it will fail", but in a minute or two, the Palestinians get their signal back on the air. The anchorman doesn't just present the news—he sings it, wailing in prayer as he describes the events of the day.

History has relatively few examples of bombing an insurgency into submission, especially a popular one. If anything, the Israeli campaign is making Hamas more popular—or at least silencing contrary voices. If the purpose of attacking Hamas was to make the more moderate leadership of al Fatah and President Mahmoud Abbas stronger, the opposite has happened. Fatah, from its bastion in the West Bank, doesn't dare to criticize its bitter rival Hamas now. That's even more true in Gaza's congested, shabby communities. "Personally, I think Hamas is to blame for starting this," says one Gaza resident, a Fatah supporter who didn't want to be named for fear of being arrested or killed by Hamas. "So do many people, but no one dares to say so." Many others, like medic Farhan Falahal at the hospital, say the attacks have only made Hamas more popular.

It is a war with a particularly twisted logic. To win, as Hamas sees it, they merely have to survive. The bar is much higher for an Israeli victory. Now that they've gone into Gaza, any withdrawal will be denounced as a defeat; any new ceasefire Hamas will claim as a victory. Lately Egyptian-brokered diplomatic efforts seem to be gathering momentum, as Hamas and the Israelis negotiate indirectly through Cairo. Publicly, at least, both sides are still far apart—Hamas demanding that Israel pull out and open the borders, Israel that Hamas be disarmed.

Hamas leaders have boasted lately that they're already writing their victory speeches. For the 1,170 Gazans who their leaders say have died so far—a third of them children—it will be an empty victory. Friday alone 65 died, according to al Aqsa TV. We went under cover of darkness to see the scene of the most recent incident, at an apartment building in Al Bureij refugee camp (these people have been refugees for decades). On the third floor, a ragged hole the size of a pickup truck exposed the entire little apartment, dollhouse-like, belonging to an alleged Hamas militant, Issa Batran. He however wasn't there when the missile, believed to have been fired from an Apache gunship, struck home at 5 p.m. Batran's wife and his six children, aged 12 to 1, were. None of them survived. The other residents of the building stood in a crowd, just around the corner in case there was another attack, speaking in quiet voices. In the sky, zananas murmured.