Israel says Hamas leaders hide in foreign missions

(Adds quote from Hamas, details)

JERUSALEM, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Israel accused Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip on Sunday of hiding in foreign diplomatic missions in an effort to elude Israeli forces.

"The leaders of Hamas and the armed wing are hiding in bunkers, hospitals and foreign missions," Israeli Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel told reporters, basing his information on an intelligence briefing received by ministers.

He did not name the missions. Few countries have diplomatic missions in Gaza and even Egypt has withdrawn its staff.

The United Nations says it keeps Hamas militants out of the schools, clinics and other institutions it runs there.

Hamas leaders went to ground and cut communications with journalists when Israel launched its 16-day-old war on Dec. 27 with air strikes on their homes and many other targets.

Even the spokesmen for the Islamist movement have become hard to reach, frequently changing their mobile telephone numbers, but occasionally responding to text messages -- if the increasingly unreliable network provides a signal.

But Hamas officials reject Israeli insinuations that their behaviour is cowardly.

"Fear is the last thing we could be accused of," Hamas parliamentarian Mushir al-Masri said on Sunday. "Martyrdom is our dearest wish, but God has ordered us not to pose ourselves as easy prey for our enemies."

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth reported at the weekend that Hamas leaders were hiding in a basement at Shifa hospital, Gaza's foremost medical facility.

Israeli officials have deflected questions on this, saying only that Hamas leaders hide where they believe themselves safe.

Israel has assassinated many Hamas leaders in the past, notably its Gaza chief and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and his successor, Abdul-Aziz al-Rantissi, in 2004.

Since then, Hamas has kept the identity of its Gaza leader a closely guarded secret. (Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Tim Pearce)