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Gaza Incursion Continues, Officials Hint at Possible Compromise

July 7, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Scott Wilson, thank you for joining us.

You have been in the heart of the fighting up in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza. Tell us how intense it is, as seen from the ground.

SCOTT WILSON, The Washington Post: It’s been quite intense over the last two days.

You have essentially Israeli tanks moving in from the north and working on the far western side of Gaza right now, in between some populated areas and really a coastal strip.

And what they’re confronting are groups of well-organized Palestinian gunmen, using rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, roadside mines, to try to stop their advance. And the fighting sort of ebbs and flows. But, at times, it’s quite intense. And it’s in very sort of densely populated areas, in orchards.

And it can come and go very, very suddenly. All this is also happening on the ground with Israeli Apache helicopters and drones overhead, which have inflicted a lot of damage to the Palestinian resistance, the armed resistance, with airstrikes that occur periodically.

MARGARET WARNER: And to what extent have the Palestinians been able to resist and, in fact, continue their attacks into Israel as well?

SCOTT WILSON: Well, it’s a good question.

It’s what we’re seeing is a very slow-moving Israeli advance. It’s very methodical. What it’s trying to do is basically expand the distance between areas used by Palestinians to launch rockets into southern Israel from those sites. And, so, it’s creating what Israel calls a buffer zone.

And, so, how fast and hard Israel is trying to come in, they’re really setting the pace. And, so, the resistance may not be doing too much to stop it. It really is Israel right now determining how far it’s going.

At the same time, the Palestinians are continuing to have the capability of sending these rockets into Israel. As many as seven landed there today, including three inside of the city of Sderot. Three people were reported wounded. So, if that’s the Israeli objective, it doesn’t seem, at least at this point, to have been completed.

The people caught in the middle

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when we talk about the Palestinians fighting back, what percentage of the men, fighting-age men in Gaza, are involved in this? Is it just the Hamas military wing, or is it a broader kind of resistance?

SCOTT WILSON: It's broader, but it's also still quite small as a percentage.

The Hamas military wing really have been sort of the vanguard of these armed groups. Today, though, I talked with a number of people from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. They're affiliated with the Fatah movement, which is a political rival of Hamas.

And, so, you are getting these armed groups affiliated with parties are really the spearhead of this resistance. Yesterday, the Hamas interior minister, though, called on the 70,000-plus security forces of the Palestinian Authority to go ahead and start attacking the Israeli forces as well.

That appeal did not appear to be heeded today and would really bring extremely sharp reprisals from Israel, if that were to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how are the civilians in this area reacting, coping? Are they assisting the Hamas fighters? Have they just retreated to their houses?

SCOTT WILSON: Many have left the area. Many have -- are just hunkering down inside their houses.

And what the Hamas gunmen, it's in any sort of urban guerrilla warfare type setting, you are seeing Hamas gunmen using private property, whether it's people's garages or their orchards or their rooftops, usually, most likely, against the people inside's will, to go ahead and to stage the attacks on the Israeli tanks and troops.

Yesterday, I saw a woman out in a street as Hamas gunmen were laying mines along a street, burying them under piles of garbage, running detonators into backyards, essentially. A woman came out of her house and started screaming at them and gesturing them to go away, to go away. And they ignored her.

So, there is some sense in these communities that this kind of resistance only makes things much worse for them.

Seeking compromise

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, there are reports today that a very influential Israeli Cabinet minister suggested a way out of this. Do the two sides appear to you to be any closer to a negotiated solution for this?

SCOTT WILSON: There does seem to be a little bit of movement in that direction. It's very hard to know what precisely is taking place behind the scenes.

Egypt has been very involved in trying to broker some kind of a prisoner exchange that would allow the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, maybe hundreds of them, at least the women and some of the miners being held.

And today, as you mentioned, Avi Dichter, who is the minister for public security, said that, if the rocket fire stopped, and the corporal was released unharmed, that Israel would likely reciprocate by releasing some prisoners at a future date.

Now, that last phrase is what Hamas has had a real problem with. They want to see an immediate exchange of prisoners. And, soon after, they said that that would not be adequate, that kind of formulation. But this is the first time that a prominent government minister has really said prisoner exchange is on the table.

MARGARET WARNER: Scott Wilson of The Washington Post, thank you so much.

SCOTT WILSON: Thank you.