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The Hamas Rope-a-Dope

It's going to be a long fight -- but Hamas has weathered the Israeli barrage thus far. And that counts as a win.

As July 27's Israeli air and artillery strikes demonstrate, the deadly confrontation in Gaza is far from over. Cease-fire proposals seem to come and go. But neither side is in the mood for sustainable de-escalation; each believes there is still much to gain from continuing the fight. Or perhaps to be more accurate, both worry about losing an advantage if they call an end to the bloody proceedings.

It's impossible to predict a winner or loser at this stage. Israel is determined to prevent a Hamas victory or even a stalemated outcome that might appear to represent one. The situation is, as they say, remarkably fluid. But three weeks in, if I had to do a tally now, I'd say Hamas has taken round one in what is likely to be an ongoing struggle. And here's why:

Survival counts as a win: As in previous confrontations, the organizational imperative dominates Hamas's tactics and strategy. Against a militarily and technologically superior Israel, Hamas can afford to waste a couple of thousand rockets and lose a few dozen tunnels, but the main goal is keeping both its military and political leadership intact, and not giving into Israel's superior firepower. Indeed, in a way Hamas wins just by not losing.

In previous confrontations, particularly during the Second Intifada, Israel succeeded in eliminating top Hamas officials, including the founder of the organization, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Even in 2008-2009's Operation Cast Lead, Israel managed to kill a few key leaders. This time around -- at least so far -- the organization appears to have weathered the storm with limited loss to its key cadres. In 2008-2009, Hamas lost as many as 600 fighters. We can't be sure of Hamas's losses during the current crisis, but with an estimated 10,000 fighters, even the loss of hundreds is hardly a stunning victory for Israel. Indeed, Hamas fighters exacted a higher price on the Israelis this time around, tripling the number of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) casualties than in both previous confrontations combined.

Israel's nerves are rattled: Of all Israel's achievements so far in Operation Protective Edge, the success of Iron Dome has to be the most significant. Hamas's vaunted arsenal of high-trajectory weapons has failed to cause significant casualties or fundamentally shut down normal life in most of the country -- as opposed to Hezbollah's missiles in the summer of 2006, which effectively shut down the northern half of the country.

But Hamas has clearly got Israel's attention this time around. By launching rockets of greater range with a daily consistency over a sustained period of time, there has been significant disruption. Governments are responsible not just for the direct physical security of their citizens but for a sense of security and normalcy too. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's temporary suspension on U.S. flights into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport and its ongoing review of security deeply affected Israel's national morale and pride. Every time there's a siren, it's a reminder that Hamas has reach. Indeed, Hamas doesn't have to kill Israelis to get their attention. It's a classic demonstration of the power of the weak in an asymmetrical conflict.

And here is where the Hamas attack tunnels come into play. Israelis have been dealing with these infiltrations since the early 2000s; after all, the 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit was a tunnel operation. But what the Israelis discovered was a sophistication, reach, and complexity to the tunnel structure that surprised them. That the necessary tools for kidnappings -- handcuffs, tranquilizers, IDF uniforms, and plans for major terrorist attacks -- were discovered there suggest an ambition that should unnerve the Israeli security and intelligence establishment, not to mention the public, particularly those living in communities close to Gaza.

Abbas looks feckless: Once again, Hamas has proved that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to give back most of the West Bank, he'd go see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But for most everything else, you go to Hamas. If you're Israel and you want a cease-fire, you go to Hamas; if you want a prisoner trade, you go to Hamas. If you're Palestinian and you want to feel pride about resisting the Israelis, you root for Hamas -- however much death and destruction it brings down upon your head. All of this tends to weaken Abbas, the good, nonviolent Palestinian who wants to negotiate a peace deal and buck up the bad Palestinians who don't. Abbas may well play some role in post-cease-fire Gaza, or at least he would like to. But in the end, he has very little to show for his presidency. He has not ended the Israeli occupation, created a Palestinian state, isolated Israel, or served as a force to unify Palestinians. Indeed, without some success in the peace process, Abbas is perceived as failing to advance -- or even stand up for -- Palestinian rights. Indeed, his latest speech has him sounding like he endorses Hamas's demands.

Hamas has attained nearly co-equal status: Think about it. A week or so ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and half the international community was chasing after Hamas in an effort to get it to agree to a cease-fire and then to include it as a party to the negotiations to deal with the underlying cause of the Gaza confrontation. This alone constitutes a remarkable achievement for a pariah organization that two months ago seemed on the ropes, broke, and pressured by Egypt. In Operation Cast Lead, there were no real negotiations over how to deal with Hamas's demands in Gaza; nor in 2012 after Operation Pillar of Defense. Now it's just possible that Hamas has hooked itself into what could amount to an international process in which it may well play a central role.

This sequel to the long-running Gaza movie is far from over. And there will be many twists and turns in store along the way that might change the score. Israel is trying to marshal support to demilitarize Gaza or at least close tunnels, and to get the Egyptians, backed by the international community, to stanch weapons flows. And unless Hamas can produce real economic gains from the current struggle, its popularity in Gaza will diminish. Despite its demands, Hamas doesn't seem to have much of an endgame. But at least for now, I'd put Hamas in the win column.

The asymmetrical nature of the casualty count and the scenes of suffering in Gaza have quite predictably made the Palestinian narrative more compelling than that of the Israelis in many parts of the globe. And while Hamas may be hurting badly, it's still up and running. On July 27 alone, 10 Israeli soldiers were killed in various Hamas attacks. Indeed, Hamas may well be on its way to validating a depressingly familiar conclusion: If you can't get what you want through phony unity agreements and tough talk, try violence and terror. It doesn't always work. But right now, it sure looks as if it might have.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

COLUMN

Keep Your Eye on Beijing

While the world focuses on the Middle East and Ukraine, China's neighbors worry about the fallout of brewing tensions along its borders. And so should we.

While the world focuses on the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine and the deepening Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tensions in another of the world's hot spots -- the periphery of China -- continue to simmer. There is widespread concern among many of China's neighbors -- including Japan, Vietnam, and India -- that Beijing's territorial ambitions could lead to military conflict. And that concern appears to be growing. Even the Chinese are now worried about whether such frictions could lead to war. The United States and Europe may be distracted by pressing events in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but Asians don't have that luxury. Tensions closer to home preoccupy them, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of nearly 15,000 people in 11 Asian nations.

When asked, majorities in six of 10 Asian nations, not including China itself, express a favorable opinion of China. But Asian views of Beijing vary widely. There are few fans of Beijing in either Japan (7 percent favorable view of China) or in Vietnam (16 percent), both of which share long-standing territorial disputes with China that have rekindled old animosities. (The animus goes both ways. Just 8 percent of Chinese voice support for Japan, a distaste that also has its roots in history.) Moreover, the Japanese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese consider China the greatest threat to their country when asked about their top allies and threats.

At the same time, more than seven in 10 Pakistanis (78 percent), Bangladeshis (77 percent), Malaysians (74 percent), and Thais (72 percent) express a positive view of China. This may, in part, be due to the fact that 75 percent of Thais, 70 percent of Bangladeshis and 69 percent of Malaysians see China's growing economy as good for them. Moreover, both the Malaysians and the Pakistanis see Beijing as their principal ally.

Beijing is Asia's largest economic and military power, and with that status comes growing frictions with its neighbors. Given that fact, there is widespread concern among publics in East, Southeast, and South Asia that Beijing's territorial ambitions and attendant disputes could boil over into military conflicts. That apprehension is also shared by many Americans looking on from afar.

Among the most prominent of the rows that stretch around much of China's periphery is that with its longtime adversary Japan, over what Tokyo calls the Senkaku Islands and Beijing terms the Diaoyu Islands, small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. In addition, the Philippines and China are embroiled in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Vietnam disputes China's oil drilling off the Paracel Islands off Vietnam's coast. And Beijing claims that the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which the two nations battled over in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, actually belongs to China.

In a 2013 Pew Research survey, strong majorities in the Philippines (90 percent), Japan (82 percent), South Korea (77 percent), and Indonesia (62 percent) said that territorial disputes with China were a big problem for their country. And nearly all Japanese (96 percent) and South Koreans (91 percent), and a majority of Filipinos (68 percent), thought China's expanding military capabilities were bad for their country.

In the 2014 Pew Research poll, majorities in eight of the 11 Asian countries surveyed are worried that China's territorial ambitions could lead to military conflict with its neighbors. In a number of the nations closest to China, overwhelming proportions of the public expressed such fears, including 93 percent of Filipinos, 85 percent of Japanese, 84 percent of Vietnamese, and 83 percent of South Koreans. Moreover, 61 percent of the public in the Philippines and 51 percent in Vietnam say they are very concerned about a possible military confrontation with Beijing.

Notably, even many Chinese share such worries. Roughly six in 10 Chinese (62 percent) are concerned about a possible conflict with one or more neighboring nations because of territorial frictions. And the 2013 Pew Research survey did find deep Chinese hostility toward at least one neighbor: Japan. At that time, 78 percent of Chinese said that Japan had not sufficiently apologized for its military actions in the 1930s and 1940s.

About half of Indonesians (52 percent) and Thais (50 percent) also voice concern about a conflict with China even though neither nation shares a border with China. Pakistanis (49 percent), who have an overwhelmingly favorable view of China and close economic and strategic ties with Beijing, also express worry that China's ambitions could lead to war.

South Korean sentiment highlights the often conflicting emotions China's neighbors harbor about the big guy on the Asian block. A majority (56 percent) of Koreans maintain a favorable opinion of China, perhaps in part because a similar majority (57 percent) say China's growing economy is good for South Korea. But 83 percent are also concerned that territorial disputes could lead to military conflict. It is possible that Koreans fear the latter could threaten the former. Or it could be that for all their economic and cultural ties with China, Koreans still distrust Beijing.

Meanwhile, Americans watch all this Asian regional territorial tension with a wary eye. The United States has a long-standing security alliance with Japan, a new military pact with the Philippines, a budding economic relationship with Vietnam, and a long-term interest in improving strategic ties with India. With such equities in Asian stability, two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) are concerned that territorial disputes with China's neighbors could lead to a regional military conflict.

In the wake of Beijing's rise as a regional and global economic and military power, there is a growing consensus around China's periphery that Beijing's territorial ambitions threaten stability. Irrespective of who is right or wrong with regard to individual claims of national sovereignty, Beijing's actions seem to be uniting its neighbors in their concern about future peace in the region. Such sentiment suggests that despite the centripetal economic forces drawing China's neighbors ever closer to the Middle Kingdom, territorial and sovereignty issues could yet trump commercial interests and lead to a regional conflict. Moreover, security concerns among China's Asian neighbors also highlight why the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" has both an economic component -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- and a military one. From northeast Asia to the Indian subcontinent, Asian publics have security concerns that only the United States can address.

Even as Washington and other Western capitals are understandably preoccupied with Ukraine and the Middle East, the pot in Asia is simmering towards a boil. Asians are worried. Americans are worried. And such concerns are worsening.

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