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Analysis: Mideast crisis a strategic stalemate

If the Israel-Hamas fighting feels like a rerun, that's because it is.

This is the third round of Hamas rockets and Israel airstrikes since the Islamic militant group seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. And issues each time seem much the same: How can Hamas be compelled to stop firing rockets? Does Israel really have the will to reconquer a Hamas-ruled Gaza and oust the militants? Can the world tolerate Israel reacting with far deadlier force than the rockets themselves, as evidenced in the hugely lopsided casualty count with each new cycle?

This round of violence came after peace talks collapsed, Israel tried to scuttle a Palestinian unity government, and violence ratcheted up. With the Gazans now suffering more, one might expect internal pressure on Hamas to end the rocket fire, which would likely bring the airstrikes to a stop. But in a region where honor is key, and with the two sides not talking, outside mediation is badly needed for a mutually face-saving cease-fire.

In a strategic stalemate where neither side seems able to accept or defeat the other, here are some key issues at play:

For Israel, it's all about the rockets

The Israeli point of view is that Hamas has grown accustomed to firing rockets and no country would tolerate such attacks. Doing nothing is not an option, and pounding Hamas hard enough seems to eventually win some quiet. Israel views civilian deaths in airstrikes as regrettable but blames Hamas for locating launchers and weapons at civilian sites. Israel makes efforts to minimize "collateral damage," like warning calls to residents and preceding big attacks on buildings with smaller bombs. Beyond this, Israelis see Hamas as a ruthless mortal enemy that cannot be accommodated and, because of its radical Islamic tenets, can barely be reasoned with.

Palestinians cast a wider net. For them the very situation in Gaza is unacceptable: Since the Hamas takeover, Israel has blockaded it by land from the north and the east, and by sea from the west, preventing air travel as well. Egypt completes the siege by keeping a tight leash on its border with Gaza to the south. The strip's 1.7 million people are crammed into low-rise shanty towns in a territory no more than 20 miles long and just a few miles wide. And even though Israel pulled out all soldiers and settlers in 2005, claiming this ended its occupation, Gazans depend on the Jewish state for electricity, water, communication networks and the currency. For many Palestinians, even those who do not support Hamas, nonconventional means like rocket fire against their perceived tormentors are an acceptable response.

Rare consensus for Netanyahu

Israel is a society so divided that normally it's hard to describe the Israeli point of view — but not so when it comes to Hamas and its rockets. That's a rare opportunity for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many Israelis dislike his policies toward the Palestinians in general, and some truly abhor the Jewish settlement of the West Bank that Netanyahu continues to promote. But the vast majority of Israelis distrust and despise Hamas — perpetrators of countless suicide bombings targeting civilians. For Netanyahu, each round with Hamas offers him a genuine popularity that's otherwise elusive.

Hamas finds itself with few allies

Arab politicians will heap condemnation on Israel but few genuinely shed tears for Hamas. Even onetime ally Iran has backed away. The Palestinian Authority recently set up a joint government with Hamas, but its animosity with the secular Fatah group of President Mahmoud Abbas runs deep. Hamas also has not accepted the conditions set by the world community to become a legitimate player: recognize Israel, abide by past agreements and renounce violence.

Disproportionate casualties

No Israelis have been killed in the past week, while more than 160 Gazans have died, many of them civilians. Similar ratios were posted during the last round, in late 2012, and also during the largest miniwar, which began in late December 2008. That buys Netanyahu time with domestic opinion — but international pressure can soon be expected for Israel to find a way to stop.

Israel prefers to rule the skies

Israel could probably change the game quickly by invading Gaza and rooting out its Hamas rulers. But an invasion would probably be a bloody affair and Israel has little stomach for great numbers of casualties. And in the longer term, Israel has no desire to again occupy the strip, as it did from 1967 to 2005. That leaves Israel with few attractive choices, which might explain why Hamas continues to fire the rockets: to poke Israel in the eye, and live to tell the tale.

Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s.

Developments

• Thousands of Palestinian residents of the northern Gaza Strip fled their homes on Sunday and sought safety in U.N. shelters, heeding warnings from the Israeli military about impending plans to bomb the area in the sixth day of an offensive against Hamas that has killed more than 160 people.

• U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and voiced U.S. "readiness" to help restore calm, while Egypt, a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, continued to work behind the scenes.

• U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called for an immediate cease-fire in a statement issued by his spokesman's office.

Analysis: Mideast crisis a strategic stalemate 07/13/14 [Last modified: Monday, July 14, 2014 12:13am]
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