BEIRUT – As the Gaza fighting wound down and expectations of a truce rose, a senior Hamas official said in an interview Thursday that the Palestinian militant group has “no shortage of missiles” and could continue bombarding Israel for months if it chose to do so.
Osama Hamdan spoke to the Associated Press hours before Israel announced a cease-fire in the bruising 11-day war against Hamas militants. The announcement late Thursday said an Egyptian proposal was accepted, though the sides were still determining exactly when the truce would take effect.
Hamdan said that Mohammed Deif, an elusive Hamas commander who has been hunted by Israel for decades, is alive and remains in charge of Gaza military operations.
Deif, also known as Abu Khaled, is by far Israel’s most wanted target in Gaza. He has survived multiple Israeli assassination attempts, and is rarely seen in public. Israeli media have said there were two more failed attempts during the current Israel-Hamas war, the fourth in just over a decade.
Hamdan told the AP that Deif is “still heading the operation and directing the joint operations" of Hamas' military wing, the Qassam Brigades, and other factions. He provided no evidence for that statement.
Since the conflict began, Israel has leveled a number of Gaza City’s tallest office and residential buildings, alleging they house elements of the Hamas military infrastructure.
On Saturday, an Israeli strike destroyed the 12-story al-Jalaa Building, an office and residential tower where the offices of the AP and the TV network Al-Jazeera were located. The military gave a warning ahead of the strike and occupants evacuated safely.
The AP has called for an independent investigation. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt has said in statement that the AP had no indication of a Hamas presence in the building. “This is something we actively check to the best of our ability,” he said.
Hamdan denied there was any military presence belonging to Hamas or any other armed group in the building.
In the interview, Hamdan said his group could continue bombarding Isra el for months if it chose to do so.
“I can assure that what we saw during the first days in terms of bombarding Tel Aviv and some areas in Jerusalem, can continue not only for days or weeks but for months,” said Hamdan. But he added that he believed a cease-fire announcement is near.
Hamdan, who is based in Beirut, is a member of Hamas' powerful decision-making political bureau.
Hamas is a militant off-shoot of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood and has sworn to pursue Israel's destruction. It has been branded a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S., the European Union and other Western allies.
Founded in 1987, Hamas consists of a secretive military wing and an above-ground political organization. Its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, runs Hamas from exile in Qatar. The group's power center remains Gaza, the small territory it seized from internationally-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' forces in 2007.
Also Thursday, Haniyeh in a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asked for a wide “mobilization of Arab, Islamic and international support” to stop Israeli airstrikes, the official IRNA news agency reported. It said this was Haniyeh's second note to Khamenei since the latest war between Israel and Hamas erupted.
The war broke out on May 10, after Hamas fired long-range rockets at Jerusalem following weeks of clashes in the holy city between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police. The protests were focused on the heavy-handed policing of a flashpoint sacred site during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
During 11 days of fighting, the Israeli military launched hundreds of airstrikes it says targeted Hamas’ militant infrastructure. Palestinian militants in Gaza fired more than 4,000 rockets toward Israeli cities and towns.
At least 230 Palestinians have been killed, including 65 children and 39 women, with 1,710 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, have been killed.
Hamdan said Egypt and Qatar have been involved in cease-fire negotiations and suggested that progress was being made. “This is the tentative vision that I believe that within 24 hours will lead to an understanding or an agreement,” he added.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced a cease-fire after a late-night meeting of his Security Cabinet on Thursday. A Hamas official, Ali Barakeh, told AP that the militants will remain on alert until they hear from the Egyptian mediators.
Hamdan said that as part of the talks, Hamas and a smaller militant group, Islamic Jihad, demand that Israeli police agree not to enter Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site. During the Jerusalem tensions that preceded the current war, Israeli riot police firing tear guns, stun grenades and rubber bullets clashed with Palestinian stone throwers in the compound. Israel is bound to reject any Hamas demands linked to Jerusalem.
During the 11-day fighting, Hamas missiles have hit deeper inside Israel and with greater accuracy than ever before, including several barrages on Tel Aviv.
Hamdan said the arsenal was far from being depleted. “There is no shortage of missiles,” he said, without elaborating.
On Thursday, Hamas received verbal support from ally Iran, which has armed militant groups through the region.
Gen. Esmail Ghaani, who heads Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, sent letters to Deif and a commander of the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, praising “their resistance” against Israel, according to state media in Tehran.
“We will stand by you,” Ghaani said in the letters to the Palestinian commanders.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.