A bloody new year in Gaza

So much for the idea that a new year marks a new beginning. Days into 2009, the world has witnessed another bloody attack by Israel on the Gaza Strip, an assault triggered by senseless provocations by Hamas. The death toll is in the hundreds and has only worsened the desperation felt by most Palestinians living in Gaza. And for what? There is no indication that either Israel or the Hamas leadership has a strategy that extends beyond punishing the other. Worse, each side is using its opponent as a domestic political foil.

Thus far, more than 430 Palestinians have been killed and about 2,200 others wounded since Israel launched its offensive on Dec. 27. At least three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed during that period. The attacks were a response to Hamas’ decision to end a six-month ceasefire on Dec. 19 and launch rockets into Israel. During that time, Hamas built up and improved its arsenal of weapons; its mortars and rockets, allegedly supplied by Iran, are now capable of reaching territory that is inhabited by more than 700,000 Israelis.

Why did Hamas’ decide to escalate its confrontation with Israel? Most likely because it felt that the ceasefire was not working to its advantage. No Palestinian prisoners have been returned; the blockade on Gaza imposed by Israel in the wake of Hamas’ takeover of the territory 18 months ago has not loosened. And, as the governing authority in Gaza, the hardships were taking a toll on Hamas’ reputation — which was Israel’s intention.

Palestinian territory is divided physically and politically. Gaza has been controlled by Hamas for 1 1/2 years since ousting the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Mr. Abbas and his Fatah supporters still control the West Bank. Unlike Mr. Abbas and the mainstream Palestinian factions, Hamas has never accepted Israel’s existence or a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Unlike Mr. Abbas, Hamas is seen as standing up to Israel — indeed, much of its reputation and support comes from its resistance to Israel. The ceasefire had brought Hamas’ position perilously close to that of Fatah. It looked like Hamas was trying to win concessions from Israel through negotiation rather than fighting — and since the government in Tel Aviv preferred dealing with a weak Fatah than a strong Hamas, it had little incentive to help Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas is betting that Israel’s response will shore up its support in Gaza, the Arab world, and beyond. Despite targeting the Hamas security infrastructure — 80 percent of the initial victims were security forces — Israel’s assault has taken a huge toll on civilians. Still, part of the blame belongs on Hamas for placing military targets in densely populated civilian areas. And the rocket launches against Israel — as many as 60 a day — continue; there have been more than 300 since the ceasefire ended.

Thus far, Hamas’ strategy has worked. Palestinians have rallied to its leadership, Fatah seems irrelevant, and international opinion is outraged at Israel. Israel looks impotent as it masses forces on the border and calls up reservists. Most analysts believe a ground assault would be another blunder. This would take the fight onto Hamas’ territory where the group can strike at closer range against Israeli forces. There are uncomfortable memories of Israel’s mismanaged July 2006 intervention in Lebanon against Hezbollah, which did great damage to Tel Aviv’s military reputation.

Cognizant of that danger, Israel is not aiming to invade, but is trying to force Hamas to negotiate another ceasefire or get other Arab nations to intervene on its behalf. The problem is that ceasefires have not undermined Hamas’ ability to fight. Worse, there is little indication that the Israeli government has war aims that go beyond inflicting serious damage to the Hamas military machine. (Some wonder how much posturing is involved in preparing for Israel’s Feb. 10 general election.) Indeed, Hamas seems to relish the fight, seeing it as more positive than negative.

This is the core of this bloody situation. Hamas has not accepted Israel’s existence or the possibility of a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, vacating all settlements and ending its presence there. In response, Hamas staged a coup against Mr. Abbas, and turned Gaza into a base of operations against Israel. Understandably, Israel has been reluctant to help or bolster the standing of its avowed enemy.

Governing Gaza requires help from Israel. The territory, home to 1.5 million people, is too small to be self-sustaining. Yet Hamas sees assistance from — and coexistence with — Israel as undermining its very reason for existence. For the group’s leaders, peace is only a temporary condition that is used to strengthen itself until it can retake the offensive against its foe. In this struggle, the lives of Gazans are secondary, cannon fodder or symbols of Israel’s recklessness. There can be no peace as long as Hamas is in power and committed to the destruction of its most important partner.