From the moment it was launched, Operation Protective Edge has been a gradual effort, designed to extinguish Palestinian mass rocket attacks through a carefully planned deterioration of Hamas’s strategic position.
The first phase – intensive air strikes on rocket launchers, weapons-production centers and command-and-control centers – was followed by the second stage, the entry of ground forces and their highly complex and challenging task of destroying Hamas’s tunnel network.
Hamas has had opportunities before each stage to opt for a truce and signal to Israel that it is serious about enforcing a calm border. In other words, Hamas has been given multiple chances to tell Israel that it has been deterred and seeks a cease-fire.
But Hamas’s leadership structure – Khaled Mashaal in Qatar and Ismail Haniyeh (head of the political wing) and Muhammad Deif (commander of the military wing) in Gaza have taken the decision to continue to confront Israel.
By doing so, the leaders are inviting Israel to launch the third phase of the offensive, and to lose any control of when Israel ceases its large-scale military offensive against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas has lost more than half of its rocket arsenal through Israeli air strikes and depletion from its own use. Should Israel launch its third phase, deterrence will become a secondary goal, and the IDF will be instructed to attack and destroy Hamas’s military assets all over Gaza.
Although the targets of such a phase are unknown, it would not be unreasonable to assume they would include Hamas’s senior military leadership structure, the remainder of its weapons factories and rocket stockpiles, regime buildings, Hamas posts, and large swaths of its territorial divisions and battalions.
That would necessitate a deeper presence of ground forces inside Gaza, and a further, controlled escalation of the conflict.
Hamas could hope to stay on its feet and be able to fire rockets until the last day of the war, thereby claiming a hollow “victory.” But that assumption ignores the very real possibility that Hamas’s military wing may be dismembered by the end of the conflict.