JERUSALEM — Israel and Hamas know that a fourth Gaza war, like the three before, would be as inconclusive as it is devastating for the impoverished territory’s 2 million Palestinians. But in the days or weeks before an inevitable truce, each will aim for something it can call a victory.
For Israel, that might mean assassinating a top Hamas commander, or destroying enough tunnels, rocket launchers and other infrastructure to say it “mowed the lawn” — a phrase widely used by Israelis to describe the temporary suppression of militants before the next confrontation.
For Hamas, the biggest prize would be capturing Israeli soldiers it could later trade for imprisoned Palestinians. A close second would be scoring a few more long-range rocket hits on Israeli cities to display the Palestinian organization’s military prowess in confronting a much stronger enemy.
Of course, the assassination of a Hamas kingpin or the capture of an Israeli soldier would trigger a major escalation, likely resulting in the deaths of large numbers of Gaza civilians. But neither side assumes it can use military means to secure its larger goals. Both expect the same eventual resolution – an internationally brokered informal truce like the ones that ended Hamas-Israeli wars in 2009, 2012 and 2014.
To overthrow Hamas, Israel would need to reoccupy Gaza in a prolonged and bloody operation that would provoke international condemnation. Not even the most hawkish Israelis are suggesting that course. By the same token, Hamas has no expectation of lifting the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed on Gaza when it seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
The rockets Hamas has fired into Israel have brought waves of Israeli airstrikes, and about a fourth of the Palestinian projectiles have fallen short, landing in Gaza. At least 119 Gazans have been killed, including a family of six, and homes and businesses have been left in ruins, deepening the misery in the isolated territory. The rockets have killed seven Israelis and sown panic as far away as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
But in the cruel calculations governing so much of the Middle East conflict, the ability to fire or not fire rockets gives Hamas leverage it can use to attain more limited goals. The militant group in recent years observed a shaky, informal cease-fire with Israel, trading calm for an easing of the blockade and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from Qatar that was delivered regularly through Israel’s Erez crossing.
“The death and destruction from the air raids are horrific,” said Tareq Baconi, an analyst with the Crisis Group, an international think tank. But for Hamas, “that kind of suffering is inevitable when Palestinians are resisting Israeli occupation.”
The rockets also allow Hamas to rally support by portraying itself as a liberation movement fighting for Palestinian rights and defending claims to 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 — along with efforts by 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 called for.
“My sense is that both sides would like to end this and go home,” Amos Harel, a longtime military correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, said.
“Hamas achieved more than it dreamed” by launching long-range rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and helping to ignite violence in Israeli cities, Harel said. “If they continue, then they will risk more casualties, more damage and hardship to Gaza.”
Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran Israeli war correspondent, also thinks Israel is unlikely to send in ground forces unless Hamas carries out a “catastrophic” attack.
“If, for example, they send a big missile and this missile hits a kindergarten in Israel, there would be a ground attack,” Yishai said.
Hamas has also scored a major win against its rivals in the increasingly unpopular and autocratic Palestinian Authority, whose authority is confined to parts of the occupied West Bank, and which has little to show for years of close security ties with Israel and billions of dollars in international aid.
Last month, President Mahmoud Abbas called off the first Palestinian elections in 15 years amid signs his splintering 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, meanwhile, derives certain advantages from maintaining the status quo that prevailed in Gaza before the latest fighting.
It routinely blames the failure of the peace process on Hamas, which does not recognize the country’s right to exist and is considered 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. That allows Israel to isolate Gaza from the larger conflict while consolidating its control over east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank — with little if any resistance from the docile Palestinian Authority.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never said it publicly, “but one would suspect he is actually quite comfortable with Hamas,” Harel said.
Israel captured 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 the Palestinians and much of the international community still view Gaza as occupied territory that should be part of an eventual Palestinian state. More than half of Gaza’s population are the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel, which controls the territory’s airspace, territorial waters, population registry and commercial crossings.
Any larger resolution to the conflict appears further out of reach than ever.
There have been no substantive peace talks in more than a decade, and Israel’s expansion of settlements and its plans to eventually annex parts of the West Bank has recently led two well-known human rights groups to accuse it of practicing apartheid. Israel rejects those allegations.
Either way, there seems no end in sight to Hamas’ rule in Gaza or the blockade Israel says is needed to contain it.
“Ground offensive or no ground offensive, ultimately it does not matter,” analyst Baconi said.
“The broader strategy is going to remain one which Israelis call mowing the lawn,” he said. That means maintaining the status quo, and “every time Gaza becomes a bit too powerful, hit it.”
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in the West Bank and Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed.