For 17 days, Israeli forces have punished Hamas fighters in Gaza with scorching firepower delivered by helicopter gunships, aircraft and artillery. Israeli troops are edging toward Gaza City, one of the most crowded places on earth, where most of Hamas' 15,000 fighters are holed up. As they do so, both Israel and Hamas are disputing claims over how much damage the assault has inflicted so far on the Islamist militia. (See pictures of chaos in the Middle East.)
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Hamas' military structure was taking "serious punishment" and that Israel was "advancing toward the endgame." Other Israeli officials say the Hamas chain of command is panicked and in disarray, with fighters deserting and the two branches of Hamas' leadership, in Gaza and Damascus, split on whether to accept a cease-fire. One Israeli military source told TIME that Hamas' walkie-talkie frequency had been cracked, and Israeli Arabic speakers have interrupted the fighters to say, "You're the ones spilling blood, not your leaders, who are safe in hiding." Israeli officials are so confident of crushing Hamas that on Sunday the military intelligence chief, Major General Amos Yadlin, gave his war briefing to the Cabinet in comical verse.
The Israelis say they have identified more than 400 known Hamas militants among the 900 Gazans that Palestinian sources say have been killed in the fighting. Israeli military sources told TIME that using intelligence from 120 suspected Hamas militants captured during the first hours of the ground invasion, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have managed to find and blow up dozens of launching sites and rocket factories. As they advanced, troops encountered booby-trapped houses and a maze of tunnels, which the Israelis cleared using little robots with camera eyes that were sent down the shafts to ferret out hiding militants. The troops' progress is slow and methodical, but this way casualties are kept low. The IDF says it has lost only 10 soldiers since the fighting began, four of those to "friendly fire."
Hamas, not surprisingly, offers a different version of how much it has suffered in the assault. TIME's reporter in Gaza met with brigade commander Abu Azam, who laughed off Israeli claims that senior Hamas officials were all hiding in underground bunkers. "See? I'm out on the street checking on my men," he said. While admitting that Hamas had suffered casualties, he claimed that its military wing was still intact. "Our proof is that we are still firing rockets at the Israelis," he said. But the number of Hamas rockets has fallen from about 80 a day at the start of the war to about 15 to 20 rockets daily.
Israeli military officials allege that at the start of the conflict, Hamas' commanders took refuge in the basement of Gaza's main hospital, Shifa, knowing that Israel would never risk the international outrage that would result from bombing a hospital. But Shifa's director, Dr. Hussain Ashaur, denied the allegation and allowed TIME to tour the basement, which was teeming with patients waiting for X-rays and ultrasounds. "Every room was busy with patients and doctors. It always is," said TIME's Azmy Keshawi.
Meanwhile, a Hamas commander in the West Bank denied reports, apparently passed on by Egypt to Israeli envoys, that the Damascus wing of Hamas wanted to persist with the fighting, while its Gaza leaders wanted to quit. He told TIME, "There's no place in a war for disagreements and splits. This talk of a difference between Damascus and Gaza is just wishful thinking on the part of the Israelis and some Arabs."
Israel is holding back on its assault into Gaza City while diplomats in Cairo try to work out a proposal to close off the Egypt-Gaza border so that Hamas can no longer smuggle weapons in through tunnels. If Egypt agrees, Israel may not need to mesh its cease-fire demands with Hamas'. What worries Israel is the likelihood that Hamas will continue to bring long-range rockets into Gaza that can strike terror in southern Israel. If Egypt can guarantee that Israel will be safe from rockets, the Israelis say their tanks will roll out of the Gaza Strip. And Hamas will be left to pick up the thousands of pieces of Gaza, having gained nothing.
For in the end, the only thing that is certain is that every symbol of Hamas' rule in Gaza, every government building, police station and office block, has been replaced by a very large hole. It will take years for Hamas to rebuild Gaza's infrastructure and to offer basic services to the war-dazed 1.5 million Palestinians inside the sealed-off territory.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad / Ramallah; Aaron. J. Klein / Be'ersheva; and Azmy Keshawi / Gaza