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(photo credit: AP)
Hamas, judging by its rhetoric and suicide bombers, is not afraid of death.
Judging by its policies, Hamas is also not afraid of causing the death or suffering of fellow Palestinians. And Hamas is definitely not afraid of killing Jews.
What Hamas is afraid of, however, is losing power; losing control of the Gaza Strip, losing its base of Islamic fundamentalism in this little corner of the Middle East.
And that fear - and the appreciation in Israel of the importance of power to Hamas - explains some of Israel's actions over the last few days in the Gaza Strip.
Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin told the security cabinet Wednesday that Hamas's ability to govern Gaza has been significantly impaired. And that, it appears, is one of the key tactical goals of the military actions of the last few days.
Operation Cast Lead began Saturday with an attack on training bases and command and control centers, the symbols of the Islamist organization's iron grip on the Strip's 1.4 million people.
It also included an attack on a graduation ceremony for a class of Hamas police cadets.
While the assessment in Jerusalem is that Hamas's military wing has to a large extent survived the initial onslaught, albeit a bit bruised, the police have taken a mighty blow. And that is not insignificant, because it is through the police that Hamas has been able to enforce order in the Gaza Strip.
And order is important if you want to rule.
On the second day, the IDF targeted the smuggling tunnels from Sinai into Gaza, tunnels that not only are used to bring in missiles and explosives, but also goods and cash that the residents of the Gaza Strip have come to rely on.
The third day was marked by attacks on the Islamic University, and on the homes of Hamas leaders and the symbols of power.
The fourth day was marked by a destruction of Hamas government offices.
Israel is going after the trappings of governance, of power, of control, of rule. And the reason is the belief that the force that may eventually sweep Hamas from power is not Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, but pure anarchy.
If Hamas cannot rule, if it cannot provide the people with what they need, if the leaders are in hiding, if anarchy reigns, then Hamas's legitimacy is delivered a major blow.
And this, to a large degree, explains Israel's targets. Jerusalem wants to hit Hamas's ability to rule, it wants to encourage anarchy that would threaten the organization.
Israel's opening of the Gaza crossings to allow in humanitarian aid contributes somewhat to this sense of anarchy, because it makes Hamas look unable to govern. If the Palestinians must rely on Israel's green light to let food aid in from third countries, then that undercuts Hamas's argument that it is able to serve its public.
But it's not only Hamas that is afraid of losing its valuable toehold - so is Iran.
Hamas has achieved something in Gaza that Hizbullah has yet to attain in Lebanon: complete control, the unimpeded rule of the Islamic fundamentalists. And it's a great base, a great jumping-off point, for further designs both on Israel and on Egypt.
Special attention should be paid to statements coming out of Teheran these days, because it may be possible to see signals in them of when Hamas might be on the verge of "crying uncle."
When Iran gets increasingly hysterical about the need for international intervention to stop the bloodshed, it is a sign that it is worried that its client is about to lose its grip on Gaza - something against Teheran's interests.
In the year and a half that Hamas has controlled Gaza, the organization has tried to create the impression that it is not a gang, not a terrorist organization, but rather a responsible party that is the head of a regime able to govern, able to maintain law and order and able to provide essential services.
When it loses its ability to do this, when it loses its control of the situation, when its loses its grip on Gaza, then its legitimacy may be diminished in the eyes of its own people.
Palestinian apologists have argued since the elections that brought Hamas to power in the PA in 2006 that the Palestinian people did not really buy into Hamas's extremist ideology, that they didn't really want a Hamas government, but rather, they were just fed up with Fatah's corruption and ineffectiveness, and voted for Hamas because they wanted a government that could rule.
But Israel seems now to be betting that if Hamas can no longer govern effectively, then its public legitimacy may wane. And that, Jerusalem believes, is something that genuinely does scare Hamas.
Israel is trying to push that process along, one reason why one of the few morsels thrown to the press from the security cabinet meeting Wednesday was Diskin's assessment that Hamas's control, its ability to govern, was hit - and hit hard.