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By Samia Nakhoul, Laila Bassam and Matt Spetalnick
(Reuters) -Hamas has prepared for a long, drawn-out war in the Gaza Strip and believes it can hold up Israel's advance long enough to force its arch enemy to agree to a ceasefire, two sources close to the organization's leadership said.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, has stockpiled weapons, missiles, food and medical supplies, according to the people, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation. The group is confident its thousands of fighters can survive for months in a city of tunnels carved deep beneath the Palestinian enclave and frustrate Israeli forces with urban guerrilla tactics, the people told Reuters.
Ultimately, Hamas believes international pressure for Israel to end the siege, as civilian casualties mount, could force a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement that would see the militant group emerge with a tangible concession such as the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli hostages, the sources said.
The group has made it clear to the U.S. and Israel at indirect, Qatar-mediated hostage negotiations that it wants to force such a prisoner release in exchange for hostages, according to four Hamas officials, a regional official and a person familiar with the White House's thinking.
Longer term, Hamas has said it wants to end Israel's 17-year blockade of Gaza, as well as to halt Israeli settlement expansion and what Palestinians see as heavy-handed actions by Israeli security forces at the al-Aqsa mosque, the most sacred Muslim shrine in Jerusalem.
On Thursday, U.N. experts called for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, saying Palestinians there were at "grave risk of genocide". Many experts see a spiraling crisis, with no clear endgame in sight for either side.
"The mission to destroy Hamas is not easily achieved," said Marwan Al-Muasher, Jordan's former foreign minister and deputy prime minister who now works for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"There is no military solution to this conflict. We are in some dark times. This war is not going to be short."
Israel has deployed overwhelming aerial firepower since the Oct. 7 attack, which saw Hamas gunmen burst out of the Gaza Strip, killing 1,400 Israelis and taking 239 hostages.
The Gazan death toll has surpassed 9,000, with every day of violence fuelling protests around the world over for the plight of more than 2 million Gazans trapped in the tiny enclave, many without water, food or power. Israeli airstrikes hit a crowded refugee camp in the Gaza on Tuesday, killing at least 50 Palestinians and a Hamas commander.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows to wipe out Hamas and has rejected calls for a ceasefire. Israeli officials say they're under no illusions about what may lie ahead and accuse the militants of hiding behind civilians.
The country has braced itself for a "long and painful war", said Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and ex-member of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee.
"We know at the end that we will prevail and that we will defeat Hamas," he told Reuters. "The question will be the price, and we have to be very cautious and very careful and understand that it's a very complex urban area to maneuver."
The United States has said now is not the time for a general ceasefire, though says pauses in hostilities are needed to deliver humanitarian aid.
HAMAS 'FULLY PREPARED'
Adeeb Ziadeh, a Palestinian expert in international affairs at Qatar University who has studied Hamas, said the group must have had a longer-term plan to follow its assault on Israel.
"Those who carried out the Oct. 7 attack with its level of proficiency, this level of expertise, precision and intensity, would have prepared for a long-term battle. It's not possible for Hamas to engage in such an attack without being fully prepared and mobilized for the outcome," Ziadeh told Reuters.
Washington expects Hamas to try to bog Israeli forces down in street-by-street combat in Gaza and inflict heavy enough military casualties to weaken Israeli public support for a drawn-out conflict, said the source familiar with the White House's thinking, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely.
Israeli officials have nonetheless stressed to their American counterparts that they're prepared to confront Hamas' guerrilla tactics as well as withstand international criticism of their offensive, according to the person. Whether the country has the capability to eliminate Hamas or merely severely degrade the organization remains an open question, the source added.
Hamas has about 40,000 fighters, according to the sources at the group. They can move around the enclave using a vast web of fortified tunnels, hundreds of kilometers long and up to 80 meters deep, built over many years.
On Thursday, militants in Gaza were seen emerging from tunnels to fire at tanks, then disappearing back into the network, according to residents and videos.
The Israeli military says soldiers from its Yahalom special combat engineering unit have been working with other forces to locate and destroy tunnel shafts, during what a spokesman called a "complex urban fight" in Gaza.
Hamas has fought a series of wars with Israel in recent decades and Ali Baraka, the Beirut-based head of Hamas' External Relations, said it had gradually improved its military capabilities, particularly its missiles. In the 2008 Gaza war, Hamas rockets had a maximum range of 40 km (25 miles), but that had risen to 230 km by the 2021 conflict, he added.
"In every war, we surprise the Israelis with something new," Baraka told Reuters.
An official close to the Iranian-backed Lebanese movement Hezbollah, which is allied to Hamas, said the Palestinian militant group's fighting strength remained mostly intact after weeks of bombardment. Hezbollah has a joint military operation room in Lebanon with Hamas and other allied factions in a regional network backed by Iran, according to Hezbollah and Hamas officials.
CALLED FOR ISRAEL'S DESTRUCTION
Hamas, which is designated a terrorist movement by Israel, the US and the EU, called for the destruction of Israel in its 1988 founding charter.
In a subsequent document known as its 2017 charter, the group accepted for the first time the idea of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders claimed by Israel after the Six Day War, although the group did not explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist.
Hamas official Osama Hamdan, who is based in Beirut, said the Oct. 7 attack and the unfolding Gaza war would put the issue of Palestinian statehood back on the map.
"It is an opportunity for us to tell them that we can make our destiny with our own hands. We can arrange the equation of the region in a way that serves our interests," he told Reuters.
Hamas gained leverage after the Oslo peace accord, agreed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1993 to end decades of conflict, hit a wall. Netanyahu won power for the first time in 1996. Palestinians and the U.S. negotiators said his governments' refusal over the years to halt Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank undermined efforts to create a separate Palestinian state. Israeli officials in the past have denied settlements were an obstacle to peace and Netanyahu's current far-right coalition has taken an even harder line against ceding occupied land.
An Arab peace initiative, with broad international and unanimous Arab support, has been on the table since 2002. The plan offers Israel peace treaties with full diplomatic ties in exchange for a sovereign Palestinian state.
Netanyahu has instead opted for seeking an Arab Sunni alliance with Israel, made up of Egypt and Jordan – nations Israel has peace treaties with dating from 1979 and 1994 – as well as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. Before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, he was in U.S.-brokered talks with Saudi Arabia to forge a landmark diplomatic deal as a united front against Iran, but that process has since been put on hold.
Muasher, the former Jordanian minister at Carnegie, said Hamas' attack had ended any possibility that Middle Eastern stability could be reached without engaging with Palestinians.
"It's clear today that without peace with the Palestinians you are not going to have peace in the region."
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Simon Lewis, Steve Holland and Phil Stewart in Washington and James Mackenzie in Jerusalem; Writing by Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Angus McDowall and Pravin Char)