What to watch for in Gaza

Michael Petrou on unanswered questions in the conflict
An Israeli border policeman fires a tear gas canister during a protest against Israel’s operations in Gaza Strip, outside Ofer, an Israeli military prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012.(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
An Israeli border policeman fires a tear gas canister during a protest against Israel's operations in Gaza Strip, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. (Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo)

Six days into the latest battle between Israel and Hamas, and other Islamist groups in the Gaza strip, there is no end to the fighting in sight.

It began in earnest on Wednesday, with Israel’s assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari and assorted air strikes against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which followed months of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. It still seemed possible a day or two later that the two groups might settle for a truce and another period of uneasy calm.

This is now clearly not the case. Both sides have continuously escalated their assaults — Hamas by sending rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; and Israel with its unrelenting air strikes and now naval artillery barrages. On Sunday it appeared to expand its targets to civilian ones, hitting the homes and offices of Hamas government officials and flattening police and security buildings.

There are several unanswered questions at this stage in the conflict:

1. What are Israel’s goals?
Its stated reasons for the offensive have been to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities and to re-establish the principle of deterrence — in other words, to make it clear to Hamas the future rocket strikes will trigger an overwhelming and punishing response.
Israel’s targeting of Hamas’s civilian infrastructure suggests it may be aiming to destroy it as a political force as well. This is unlikely to succeed and, if it did, would leave Gaza without political leadership Israel could hold responsible for future rocket attacks.

2. Is a ground invasion inevitable?
The answer to this question depends on what Israel’s goals are. It’s possible there are weapons caches and the like that Israel feels it needs troops on the ground to find and destroy. But its ability to assassinate Jabari, for example, suggests a sophisticated knowledge of where things are in Gaza, and therefore the ability to hit them from the air. Still, the 75,000 troops it is in the process of mobilizing are a heck of a bluff.

3. How will this end?
Israel failed to destroy Hamas in wars in 2006 and 2008-9. A wide-ranging and devastating campaign in Lebanon in 2006 left Hezbollah intact. Unless Israel is contemplating re-occupying the Gaza strip — and there is as of yet no evidence that it is — this war will also end with Hamas as the principle power in Gaza. Israel’s best hope is that it will be deterred and degraded. The fighting will likely end when a ceasefire is negotiated. Neither side will stop unless there is some assurance that their opponents will do the same.

4. What role will Egypt play?
Prior to the Arab Spring, Egypt and Israel enjoyed an alliance that was chilly and without affection, but nevertheless largely functional. Now the president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, comes from the ranks of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot. Morsi has decisively taken Hamas’s side in this battle, even sending his prime minister, Hashim Qandil, to Gaza in the midst of Israeli air strikes (requiring Israel to suspend them during his visit).
This inevitably strains Egypt’s relationship with Israel. Israel, however, has few friends who also talk to Hamas. Egypt is therefore still the party most likely to broker a ceasefire. There are no signs that one is imminent.