For 25 years Israel and Hamas have fought, and for 25 years neither has prevailed. Hamas has scored many victories: it began as a small terrorist organization in 1987 and steadily grew in size and importance. In 2006, it won elections in Gaza and seized power there in 2007, becoming the Strip's de facto government and emerging as an equal to Fatah, which dominates the West Bank. Israel, however, has prevented Hamas from gaining further ground in the West Bank while, over time, forcing Hamas to realize, in practice if not in rhetoric, that the Jewish state is here to stay.
The problem, then, with trying to end the fighting and prevent another recurrence is that both sides believe that using force advances their interests. Now, they each want more, and both face domestic pressure to demand more.
Rocket attacks from Gaza have increased in 2012, making life miserable for Israelis near the Strip. The goal of Israel's most recent campaign, "Pillar of Defense," is to force Hamas to end its own rocket attacks and to compel other Palestinian groups to do so as well. As Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, declared, "Hamas is responsible for the rocket fire and all other attempts to harm our soldiers and civilians, even when other groups participate." Israel is demanding what all governments demand: that its own people be safe.
Hamas' goal is less straightforward but grander. On the one hand, it seeks to govern Gaza, both because it cares about the welfare of Gazans and because it wants to enhance its status among Palestinians outside Gaza. In so doing, it hopes to out-govern and thus outstrip Fatah, its longstanding and more moderate rival, and become the voice of all the Palestinian people. Hamas also seeks international recognition, and recent visits from senior leaders of Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt are important milestones for the group.
Hamas, however, also gains credibility by being what it calls a "resistance" organization -- one that has used suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and other forms of terrorism and violence against Israel. Hamas' long struggle with Israel has won it other foreign backers, most notably Iran, and gained it admiration from Palestinians who want revenge on Israel or who believe Israel will only make concessions if forced to do so. In addition, Hamas faces rivals in Gaza -- groups like Palestine Islamic Jihad and Salafi-jihadist groups with a radical ideology more akin to al Qaeda's -- that want to continue fighting Israel and would accuse Hamas of collaborating if it abandons resistance.
When Israel entered Gaza in its 2008-2009 "Cast Lead" operation, which killed over 1,000 Palestinians and destroyed much of Gaza's infrastructure, it forced Hamas to confront the contradictions inherent in these goals: Hamas could not deliver services and otherwise govern well while it used violence against Israel. Since then, Hamas has tried to limit its own involvement in violence to avoid Israeli retaliation and gain international support. At the same time Hamas, has kept its toe (and sometimes more) in the water to maintain its resistance credibility. Even more importantly, from an Israeli point of view, Hamas has tolerated -- sometimes more, sometimes less -- attacks by other groups on Israel in order to avoid charges of collaboration. But as often as not, Hamas stopped attacks from other groups. As Aluf Benn, one of Israel's leading security analysts, declared, "Ahmed Jabari" -- the Hamas commander Israel killed last week -- "was a subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel's security in Gaza." The trickle of rocket attacks, however, grew stronger as the memory of Cast Lead grew hazier, and what was seen as a nuisance became a threat.
With Pillar of Defense, Israel seeks to force Hamas to again police Gaza on its behalf and restore its deterrence while reassuring its own citizens so Hamas cannot intimidate them. In other words, Israel is playing both offense and defense.