JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel and Hamas know that a fourth war in Gaza, like the previous three, would be as inconclusive as it would be devastating for the 2 million Palestinians in the impoverished territory. But in the days or weeks leading up to an inevitable truce, everyone will be aiming for something they can call victory.
For Israel, that could mean assassinating a senior Hamas commander, or destroying enough tunnels, rocket launchers and other infrastructure to say he “mowed the lawn” – a phrase widely used by the Israelis to describe the temporary suppression of militants before the next confrontation.
The biggest price for Hamas would be to capture Israeli soldiers that it could later trade in for jailed Palestinians. A close second would be to score a few more long-range rocket hits at Israeli towns to show the military prowess of the Palestinian organization in confronting a much stronger enemy.
Of course, the assassination of a Hamas leader or the capture of an Israeli soldier would trigger a major escalation, possibly resulting in the deaths of large numbers of civilians in Gaza. But neither side assumes that it can use military means to achieve its larger goals. Both await the same eventual resolution – an informal, internationally negotiated truce like the ones that ended the Hamas-Israel wars in 2009, 2012 and 2014.
To topple Hamas, Israel would need to reoccupy Gaza in a protracted and bloody operation that would elicit international condemnation. Even the most belligerent Israelis do not suggest this path. Likewise, Hamas does not expect to lift the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed on Gaza when it seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
Rockets that Hamas fired at Israel sparked waves of Israeli airstrikes, and about a quarter of Palestinian projectiles failed, landing in Gaza. At least 122 Gazans killed, including 31 children and 20 women, while at least 900 people have been injured and houses and businesses are in ruins, aggravate the misery in the isolated territory. The rockets killed seven Israelis and spread panic as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
But in the cruel calculations that govern so much of the Middle East conflict, the ability to fire rockets or not gives Hamas leverage it can use to achieve more limited objectives. The militant group has observed an informal and unstable ceasefire with Israel in recent years, trading calm for blockade relief and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from Qatar that was routinely delivered through the point of Israeli crossing of Erez.
“The death and destruction caused by the air raids is horrific,” said Tareq Baconi, analyst at Crisis Group, an international think tank. But for Hamas, “this kind of suffering is inevitable when Palestinians resist the Israeli occupation.”
The rockets also allow Hamas to rally its support by presenting itself as a liberation movement fighting for Palestinian rights and defending claims in Jerusalem, the emotional center of the decades-old conflict.
Hamas banners now hang outside Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, where heavy clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters earlier this month – as well as the efforts of Jewish settlers to evict Palestinian families – triggered the latest violence.
Hamas can also revel in the outbreak of Arab-Jewish violence inside Israel, which in some ways resembles the kind of Palestinian uprising the militant group has long been calling for.
“I have a feeling that both sides would like to end this and return home,” said Amos Harel, longtime military correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“Hamas has achieved more than expected” by launching long-range rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and helping to unleash violence in Israeli cities, Harel said. “If they continue, they will risk more casualties, more damage and suffering in Gaza.”
Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran Israeli war correspondent, also believes that Israel is unlikely to send ground forces unless Hamas carries out a “catastrophic” attack.
“If, for example, they send a big missile and that missile hits a kindergarten in Israel, there will be a ground attack,” Yishai said.
Hamas also won a major victory over its rivals in the increasingly unpopular and autocratic Palestinian Authority, whose authority is confined to parts of the occupied West Bank, and which has had little to show for years of close security ties with Israel and billions of dollars in international aid.
Last month, President Mahmoud Abbas canceled the first Palestinian elections in 15 years amid the signs, his shattered Fatah party would suffer an embarrassing defeat to Hamas. The militant group’s stature has only grown since then, with Abbas largely sidelined by the conflict.
Israel, for its part, derives certain advantages from maintaining the status quo that prevailed in Gaza before the latest fighting.
He systematically attributes the failure of the peace process to Hamas, which fails to recognize the country’s right to exist and is viewed as a terrorist group by Israel and Western nations.
But Harel says that for many Israelis Hamas is “the preferred enemy” because it rejects a two-state solution. This allows Israel to isolate Gaza from the wider conflict while consolidating its control over East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank – with little to no resistance from the docile Palestinian Authority.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never said so publicly, “but one would suspect he is actually quite comfortable with Hamas,” Harel said.
Israel seized East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in a 1967 war, territories the Palestinians want for their future state. It withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
But Palestinians and much of the international community still view Gaza as occupied territory that should be part of a possible Palestinian state. More than half of Gaza’s population are the refugee descendants of what is today Israel, which controls the airspace, territorial waters, the population register, and trade crossings in the territory.
Any broader resolution to the conflict seems more out of reach than ever.
There have been no substantive peace talks for more than a decade, and Israel’s expansion of settlements and its plans to eventually annex parts of the West Bank recently led two well-known human rights groups to accuse him of practicing apartheid. Israel rejects these allegations.
Either way, there does not appear to be an end in sight to the Hamas regime in Gaza or the blockade Israel says is necessary to contain it.
“Ground offense or no ground offense, ultimately it doesn’t matter,” analyst Baconi said.
“The broader strategy will remain what the Israelis call mowing the lawn,” he said. It means maintaining the status quo, and “whenever Gaza gets a little too powerful, hit it.”
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in the West Bank and Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed.