Middle East

Gazans fearfully await Israel's next step

Hamas policeman outside the destroyed office building of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, 17 November 2012
Image caption The building that housed the offices of Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh was flattened

On Saturday the Israeli military released video footage, taken by an unmanned drone, of last night's air strike attack on the offices of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza.

This morning we went down to the site - what must once have been quite a sumptuous house on a roundabout near the coast.

Apparently the offices were hit several times by bombs, which rattled the whole city.

Mr Haniyeh had not been there - like the rest of the Hamas leadership he is thought to be in hiding after direct threats against him from the Israeli army.

His headquarters, though, were flattened.

A few Palestinian flags hung limply in the breeze as neighbours looked forlornly on and security guards, fearing another strike, warned onlookers to keep their distance.

All of this begs a question. Having done so much damage to the military capabilities of Hamas and the other militant organisations, does Israel consider the job "almost over", or is it now preparing a second phase - the defeat of Hamas as a political entity in Gaza as well?

There have been considerably fewer rockets fired from Gaza in the last 24 hours - perhaps proof that the hundreds of Israeli air strikes have achieved their stated goal, of protecting Israelis from rocket attacks.

Civilian casualties

At another location in Gaza this morning we saw further evidence that Israel is perhaps prepared to expand its operation above and beyond what it sees as purely "military" targets.

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Media captionThe Israeli military released footage showing an air strike on Gaza

Jabaliya is one of the most crowded parts of the densely populated Gaza Strip.

In the middle of the camp was a flattened house, which, according to locals belonged to a local Hamas official.

It had been bombed by Israel last night and, like Ismail Haniyeh's offices, had been reduced to rubble.

The Hamas man was reportedly not injured, but several of his neighbours were.

Almost inevitably in such a crowded area, however "surgical" Israel can claim its strikes are, there will almost always be civilian casualties.

Israel has not yet articulated what it plans to do next. If the first phase is almost over, will it indeed launch the dreaded ground invasion - sending tanks and troops into Gaza as it did four years ago?

Hamas's political leaders can certainly be weakened, even killed, if Israel chooses to extend its policy of assassination from military to political leaders.

But eliminating Hamas altogether and defeating the thousands of young men who are members of the armed brigade would, arguably, be a futile move and would probably cost more Israeli as well as Palestinian lives.

While there are clearly options for the militants and their political leaders in Gaza - the biggest decision at his point is for Israel.

It could end this military operation after another couple of days having achieved its initial military goals and reduced the rocket fire against Israeli towns in the south.

On the other hand, Israel could launch what it is already calling an overwhelming "second phase".

That is a decision the people of Gaza, Israel and the wider world is waiting for.