The savage fighting between Israel and Hamas is escalating in Gaza, cease-fire efforts take on elements of farce, and bravado rules the public discourse. But even through the fog of war, a few endgame scenarios can nonetheless be glimpsed.
For the moment, the deadlock is well-entrenched: As long as the crippling blockade of Gaza remains in place, Hamas says it will continue firing rockets at Israel — terrifying but mostly ineffectual, thanks to the "Iron Dome" defense system. Israel says the blockade must stay to stop a terrorist government from importing yet more weapons.
There is not much pressure yet on either side to stop — even in Gaza, where more than 1,300 people, mainly civilians, have been killed, amid widespread devastation. An Egyptian-led cease-fire plan more than two weeks ago, which Israel accepted and was a straight return to the status quo before this current round — was rejected by Hamas, and there was little criticism of that decision in Gaza. Such is the hatred of the air, land and sea blockade in the strip — in addition, perhaps, to the fear of Hamas.
Last week's mediation effort led by John Kerry fizzled amid a most undiplomatic frenzy of criticism in Israel of the U.S. secretary of state. He had dared suggest Hamas' blockade-ending demands be on the table. He also had ignored Israel's new demands — probably long-term at best — that the militant group be disarmed.
If Palestinian casualties keep rising, the world could pressure Israel to stop, even though that would leave Hamas with a victory of sorts. In 1996, Israel halted a bombing campaign in Lebanon against Hezbollah militants after hitting a U.N. compound housing refugees — an airstrike that Israel said was an error.
While it is too early to say how all this will end, quiet diplomacy continues. There also is a growing sense that it can't go on much longer — but then again, it might.
Here are some ways it could play out:
ISRAEL DECLARES VICTORY AND LEAVES
If you listen carefully, Israeli leaders generally describe the ground operation in Gaza as intended to destroy the Hamas-built tunnels leading into Israel, almost certainly for purposes of attack. The military says it has found and is destroying more than 20 tunnels and believes there are a few more. Once that job is done, Israel could well pull out and try to declare victory or even a unilateral cease-fire. The hope would be that the respite from the devastation visited on Gaza would compel Hamas to think again and quietly accept a return to the way it was: no rocket fire on Israel; no airstrikes and shelling of Gaza. This probably wouldn't work. Hamas has put Gazans through so much that they certainly feel they must have something to show for their efforts in the form of an easing of the blockade. Rocket fire would continue and the hostilities would swiftly resume.
Despite huge reservations, Israel may just end up reoccupying the strip, even at the cost of hundreds of soldiers and then being saddled with nearly 2 million Gazans to rule. If the situation becomes bad enough, more fantastical scenarios suggest themselves: perhaps even a NATO force to pacify and rebuild the traumatized strip. It probably won't be necessary. Hamas will run out of rockets eventually. But for now, it's believed to have thousands more, Israel will continue to strike back, and the destruction will be harrowing for weeks.
THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY TAKES OVER THE BORDER WITH EGYPT
Hamas wants an end to the blockade that was imposed by Israel after the militants won the 2006 Palestinian parliament election, were sidelined by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and then seized Gaza in 2007. Some minor things are conceivable, like a small extension of the rights of fishermen to venture out to sea. But Israel will not allow true sea access or an airport as long as Hamas controls the strip. The concern is that even bigger rockets and weapons would stream in. Israel also won't soon open its borders to Gazans, remembering too well the suicide bombings of a decade ago.
There is one plausible way to greatly ease the siege: Open the southern border near the town of Rafah leading to Egypt, and put the Gaza side not under the control of Hamas but under the Palestinian Authority. Cairo has been extremely cool to the idea of opening the frontier but not to the PA taking it over, in line with the tough Egypt-first policy of new President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Egypt seems little inclined to help Hamas against Israel, views Gaza as someone else's problem, and fears Gaza's militants trickling in and compounding its own jihadi problems in Sinai. But the PA on the border could be spun as a win for everyone: Hamas broke the siege; the PA is back in business in the strip; Israel didn't give up much under fire; the Gazans feel relief; and Egypt is the hero. When the dust finally settles, don't be surprised if this is the face-saving way out.
THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY TAKES OVER GAZA
Somehow forgotten in the current discourse is that the blockade was imposed after the Hamas takeover. It was probably intended both to be punitive — an incentive to the people to rebel, which has proven impractical under the militants — and to prevent Hamas from arming further. At this point, it is mainly about this latter goal of reining in Hamas. Alternatively, Hamas could call the world's bluff by accepting the conditions presented to it by the world community: recognize Israel, adhere to previous agreements, renounce violence. Acquiescence here would also probably eliminate the blockade. But no one expects Hamas to do this; it would cease to be Hamas. Either way, the principle's the same: No Hamas — no blockade.
West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas signed a "unity government" deal two months ago that would have actually achieved this on paper — but few seriously expected Hamas to give up its control of Gaza. Israel fought vehemently against the deal, lobbying the world to shun even Abbas — part of a series of events that culminated in the current fight. Essentially the "unity government" was stillborn — but the war could give the arrangement new and genuine life, especially if this comes with serious relief on the blockade. Hamas would find it especially hard to oppose this if major financial incentives were added, like billions in aid from the Gulf and the West, conditioned on the PA being in charge. After all, the support it finds among ordinary Gazans is about improving life for the people, not fighting Israel to the death. Last week, both the German and French foreign ministers said re-involving the PA in the administration of Gaza was the only way to guarantee a long-term cease-fire. Given Hamas' relative unpopularity in the region at the moment, and its money crunch, it's not inconceivable.
A challenge for Israel, therefore: It will have to go along with such a game-changing ambitions to a degree. But what if militants from an Abbas-run Gaza still find a way to fire rockets? It may actually rue the day Hamas melted away, removing with it Israel's near-impunity to hit back as hard as the past month has seen.
Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s and currently leads Associated Press' text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan.