Despite Gaza Attacks, Hamas Thinks It Has the Upper Hand

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Khalil Hamra / AP

Palestinian medics wheel a wounded man into Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Jan. 5; Palestinian medical sources say he was hurt in an Israeli strike

Israel says its military offensive in Gaza has dealt Hamas a heavy blow, but that's not how the leaders of the radical Palestinian group see it. Their view is based more on a kind of jujitsu that uses Israel's military momentum against its own political objectives than on any serious belief in rhetoric about the organization's "steadfast" fighters being able to "crush" the invaders.

Israel had long assumed that Hamas wanted a ground invasion so it could land some blows on the Israeli military in order to claim a propaganda victory once the Israelis inevitably withdrew. Still, by entering Gaza on Saturday, the Israelis calculated that they could draw Hamas into clashes that would substantially weaken the organization, even if Israel suffered some casualties. But despite the ferocity of the fighting that rages in some parts of Gaza, there are indications that Hamas is keeping many of its best fighters out of the direct path of the advancing Israelis. Israeli military officials have noted that resistance has not been as fierce as expected, and that most Israeli soldiers wounded in the operation thus far have been struck by mortar rounds fired from a considerable distance. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel in a symbolic taunt to the Israeli public. (See pictures of Israel's sweep into Gaza.)

So what's Hamas' game?

The militant group is operating on a belief that Israel's assault cannot be sustained in the face of growing international pressure for a cease-fire. In fact, Hamas believes it is winning the political battle, as images of the horrors being suffered by the Palestinian civilian population flash around the world. And it wants to ensure the survival of as much of its military and organizational capabilities as possible so as to best profit from an eventual truce.

So far, there has been little sign of massive fight-to-the-finish confrontations. Retreating to remain intact in the face of a heavily armored enemy force supported by air power is a well-established part of the guerrilla-warfare playbook. The fact that so much of Hamas' military capability has not yet been committed to the confrontation underscores the fact that its leadership is not feeling desperate. Hamas leaders believe their key weapon is the mounting pile of civilian casualties and inevitable humanitarian crisis that accompanies military action in a densely populated urban setting. The longer the Israeli military operation endures, Hamas believes, the more it damages the Israelis' political goal of isolating and weakening the radical movement. A cease-fire that ends rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel won't necessarily be a setback for Hamas; the organization has, in fact, demanded such a truce all along, on the condition that Israel and Egypt open the border crossings that would allow a resumption of normal economic life in Gaza. (The crossings have long been closed, as Israel hoped that economic pressure might topple the Hamas regime there.) A cease-fire that fails to reopen the crossings would be deemed a defeat by Hamas, but as long as a truce lifts the economic siege, Hamas believes it will be politically strengthened by the confrontation.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, has repeatedly stressed that by weakening Hamas in Gaza, the Israeli military operation will boost moderate Arab leaders threatened by radical Islamist groups. But the opposite may be occurring, as pan-Arab cable news channels carry round-the-clock coverage of civilian suffering in Gaza. Amid the wave of outrage against Israel and those Arab leaders accused of enabling its offensive, even leaders who had initially blamed Hamas for the crisis have been forced to revert to boilerplate denunciations of Israel. Hamas leaders insist that their political and security infrastructure remains intact, and they believe the steady stream of images of bloodshed and destruction in Gaza will be their most effective weapon against the Israeli invasion. Israel destroyed Hamas' TV station early in the bombing campaign, but the fact that it is still broadcasting by means unknown suggests that the organization, just like Israel, has placed a premium on shaping the perception of the conflict. Its focus is on maintaining and expanding its political power after the Israelis retreat.

Although Egypt, which brokered last June's cease-fire but remains hostile to Hamas, invited the radical Palestinian group to talks in Cairo on Monday, Hamas is looking elsewhere for mediation: to Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been touring the region, and plans to take Hamas' cease-fire demands to the U.N. Security Council this week. Ankara, via its relations with Syria, has better access to Hamas than Egypt does. Turkey also has historically close relations with Israel and is a key NATO member, although it has angered Israeli leaders by condemning Israel for maintaining the economic siege of Gaza even while Hamas observed last year's truce. There's emerging consensus in diplomatic discussions about a cease-fire of the need to deploy an international force in Gaza to police it, and Turkey would be a prime candidate for such a mission.

Neither side is likely to have all its demands met by a cease-fire. The amount of compromise each side will have to swallow will be determined by the impact, in Gaza and beyond, of the ongoing clash of bombs, bullets, rockets and images. After that will come the battle to shape the perception of victory. Israelis go to the polls next month to pick a new government, and more hawkish politicians may accuse Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Livni (both of whom are running for Prime Minister) of failing to finish the job. That, and the probability that the cease-fire will include a mechanism for reopening the border crossings, makes the Islamists believe that, despite the casualty count, the war is not going too badly for them.