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What Hamas hopes to gain from the crisis in Gaza

A Palestinian inspects a charitable organization that police said was targeted in an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip July 15, 2014. (REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa )

Israeli air strikes on suspected militant positions in Gaza resumed following the unraveling of a short-lived unilateral cease-fire. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to a plan "brokered" by the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, which has a deep antipathy for the Islamist organization Hamas, the group that dominates Gaza and is in the crosshairs of Israel's military. It was unclear whether Hamas officials were even consulted on the cease-fire's terms. Unsurprisingly, a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing said the cease-fire was "not worth the ink used in writing it." The group continued to fire a barrage of rockets at Israel in the hours the cease-fire was supposedly in effect.

More than 185 Palestinians in Gaza have perished during Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli military's name for its current offensive; there has been one reported Israeli fatality. The asymmetric nature of the conflict has appalled many in the international community, but Israel says its actions are aimed purely at defending its citizens from the hundreds of rockets launched by Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza. So why does Hamas persist with a military conflict it can't win? Here are three points to keep in mind.

Hamas does not want a return to the status quo

A cessation of hostilities may end the current Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza, but it would reinstate a state of affairs many Gazans find intolerable. Since 2007, after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, Israel has clamped down on the densely-populated, impoverished territory, imposing blockades and launching various military incursions. "The problem is not the cease-fire, the problem is the situation in Gaza," said Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's top leader in Gaza, in a televised address on Monday.

Hamas, as well as many ordinary Gazans, want restrictions on border crossings into the enclave to be loosened--in particular, the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which is the main gateway into the territory for goods and aid. But controls have been tightened further since the ascension of Egypt's Sissi, who ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and banned Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, an institution that is Hamas's ideological progenitor.

After the disappearance of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month (who were eventually found murdered), Israel conducted mass arrests of hundreds of suspected Hamas operatives living there, even though the group denies any role in the teenagers' abduction. Critics accused Israel of carrying out "collective punishment" on the Palestinians. Hamas wants some 54 of those detained to be released. Other demands include the extension of fishing zones in compliance with a 2012 agreement that critics say Israel has not followed. Gazan fishermen, struggling in the dwindling shoals, face routine harassment from Israeli gunboats.

For Hamas, rockets are politics by other means

As WorldViews discussed here, Israel's sophisticated Iron Dome system has neutralized most of the dangerous rockets launched from the Gaza Strip; many of the rockets fired carry no payload or land harmlessly in the desert or sea. Yet militants in Gaza continue to launch them at Israel amid the current crisis.

Rocket fire is Hamas's main tool for achieving, or at least asserting, its demands. The Islamist organization styles itself as a resistance movement against Israeli occupation and has long been at odds with the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the main Palestinian interlocutor in the stalled peace process with Israel. Abbas has little influence over Gaza and the current escalation sidelines him even more, as my colleagues Griff Witte and William Booth write:

Bitter Abbas aides acknowledge that the president is fast losing relevance, but they say this is what Israel intended all along: hopeless negotiations followed by a fight that would elevate militant Palestinian elements at the expense of relative moderates. The timing, they say, is aimed at derailing a fragile Palestinian reconciliation deal that brought together the various factions, including Hamas, under Abbas’s leadership.
“The objective of this war for Israel is political revenge against Mahmoud Abbas,” said Husam Zomlot, a top foreign policy official in Abbas’s secular Fatah party. “Israel wants to pull all of us into the military arena, because that’s where they have the advantage.”

Hamas thrives in this polarized context. Earlier Israeli operations against Hamas in Gaza in 2008 and 2012 led to tremendous loss of life, but did little long term damage to the militants. Hardline politicians in Israel are now calling for a ground offensive into Gaza, a move that could lead to a calamitous escalation of the conflict.

Hamas also tragically gains from the rising death toll of Palestinian civilians. A cease-fire on Israel's terms, writes Mya Guarnieri of the +972 blog, "would also mean an end to the immediate damage to Israel’s image caused by the horrific photos and footage coming out of Gaza, and global protests against what Israel calls 'Operation Protective Edge.'"

Hamas has fewer options and less leverage than in the past

Away from the battle, Hamas in Gaza faces crippling financial headaches and mounting anger over its record of governance in the territory. Some 40,000 public employees employed by the Hamas-run government in Gaza have gone without salaries for months, eking by on small stipends. The group is demanding the payment of these salaries as a condition for a cease-fire.

The shortfall in funds is in part a consequence of the upheavals of the Arab Spring. The civil war in Syria caused it to lose a key backer in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who's now the target of Sunni jihadists -- Hamas's ideological brethren -- across the region. Iran, the Middle East's chief Shiite power, has also reduced its assistance to Hamas in recent years.

The closure of many smuggling tunnels into Gaza from Egypt has taken a toll, as well. Sissi in Egypt, as my colleague Adam Taylor writes here, seems to have returned his country's foreign policy to the earlier era of Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, where a U.S.-authored pact with Israel guaranteed a degree of stability in the region and military aid to Egypt, but did little to improve the lot of ordinary Palestinians. Sissi accuses Hamas of abetting an insurgency in Egypt's restive Sinai peninsula.

Without Egypt on its side, it's unclear where Hamas can turn abroad for greater leverage. It retains varying levels of support from governments in Qatar and Turkey, but not enough that it can place much stock in a positive diplomatic solution. And so it clings to its bellicose rhetoric and rocket fire, no matter the bodies piling up around it.