Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date that Hamas won Palestinian elections and later seized control in Gaza. It has been corrected to show that these events took place in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

For more than a decade, when analysts described the strategy utilized by Israel against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, they’ve used a metaphor: With their displays of overwhelming military strength, Israeli forces were “mowing the grass.”

The phrase implies the Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and their supply of crude but effective homemade weapons are like weeds that need to be cut back.

Such tactics have faced significant criticism from international human rights groups, often due to the disproportionate number of deaths caused by Israeli forces, compared to those caused by Palestinian militants during conflict.

As Israel this week launched devastating airstrikes aimed at Gaza militants and massed forces near the enclave’s borders in response to rockets fired from Gaza — citing a familiar mention of new rocket technology, Hamas tunnels and civilian deaths despite warnings — the long-term benefits of the “mow the grass” strategy have come under question.

Zehava Galon, a former lawmaker with the leftist Meretz party, wrote for Haaretz that the strategy results in “perpetual war” that forgets “human beings are also able to talk, not only to carry a club.”

But while many liberals suggest a new effort to find peace through negotiations is what’s needed, some conservatives say that only military action will resolve the situation.

“Just like mowing your front lawn, this is constant, hard work,” David M. Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security wrote for the Jerusalem Post this week. “If you fail to do so, weeds grow wild and snakes begin to slither around in the brush.”

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants have fired rocket salvos in the most intense fighting in years. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why did Israel pull out of the Gaza Strip?
  • How has the “mowing the grass” strategy evolved?
  • Is this time different?

Why did Israel pull out of the Gaza Strip?

Gaza, a 140-square-mile strip of coastal land along the border with Egypt, came under Israeli control in 1967 following the Six Day War with Arab states. Though some Israeli settlers moved into the land, among some politicians there was little enthusiasm for control of the land.

“I would like Gaza to sink into the sea, but that won’t happen, and a solution must be found,” Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was reported to have said in 1992.

After the Oslo accords in 1993, most of the strip came under the control of the newly formed Palestinian Authority. But the area saw widespread violence after the second intifada began in 2000 and Israeli forces began building barriers between Gaza and Israel, as well as the border with Egypt.

In 2005, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel unilaterally decided to “disengage” from Gaza, removing not only its military force within the area but also upward of 8,000 Israelis who had been living in settlement camps in the area.

Hamas, which first emerged during the first intifada in 1987 as the Palestinian wing of Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement and had used violent tactics against the Israeli occupation, won Palestinian elections in 2006.

The move set off a power struggle with Fatah, the long-running political party founded by the late Yasser Arafat, culminating in Hamas seizing control of Gaza in 2007 while Fatah kept control of the West Bank.

How has the “mowing the grass” strategy evolved?

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza soon after Hamas took control, while the military wing of the group, known as the Qassam Brigades, fired crude rockets into Israeli territory. In the decade and a half since, violence has flared up periodically between the two sides.

While previous military actions involving Israel — such as those with Arab states in 1948, 1967 or 1973 — have been full fledged conflicts, Israeli military tactics were often designed to set back the enemy rather than conclusively defeat it. The same strategic goal has been used in dealing with Hamas.

“Against an implacable, well-entrenched, nonstate enemy like the Hamas, Israel simply needs to ‘mow the grass’ once in a while to degrade enemy capabilities. A war of attrition against Hamas is probably Israel’s fate for the long term,” Efaim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, two Israeli experts, wrote in a 2014 article for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Israel and Hamas have engaged in widespread fighting several times over the years since, with Israeli troops on the ground what they called Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, following extensive airstrikes.

Israeli officials have justified the airstrikes and invasions with the need to destroy rocket stockpiles used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a smaller militia in the strip. In 2011 Israel also unveiled its short-range defense system, known as Iron Dome, which it claims to have a 90 percent success rate at intercepting rockets and artillery from Gaza.

The strikes also have target tunnels dug by Palestinian militia groups into Israeli territory, according to Israeli officials. In 2014, officials said that Hamas militiamen had emerged from the tunnels wearing Israeli military uniforms and killed soldiers.

Israeli officials have been open about their aims with such tactics. “This sort of maintenance needs to be carried out from time to time, perhaps even more often,” Yoav Galant, a former military commander of Israel’s southern district who is now in politics, said in a radio interview in 2014.

But such actions come at a cost: After the six-week conflict in 2014, the United Nations said that 2,104 Palestinian had died; 1,462 civilians were included that number, of whom 495 were children. Sixty-six Israeli military personnel also died, along with six Israeli civilians.

Is this time different?

The situation in Gaza seemed to be following a familiar pattern this week: Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired rockets into Israel. The Israeli military responded with pounding airstrikes, targeting Hamas leaders but also killing civilians. Deaths and injuries were reported by both sides, but with casualties disproportionally large on the Palestinian side.

Hamas appears to have made some significant changes to its tactics in recent years, firing barrages of longer-range rockets at Tel Aviv this week that appeared to briefly overwhelm Iron Dome.

The spread of violence to Israeli towns with large Arab population also raises new questions about Gaza-focused military tactics.

Israel, however, seems to be following its “mow the grass” playbook.

On Friday, Israeli officials said that more than 60 aircraft simultaneously struck over 150 underground targets in the northern Gaza Strip, centered around Beit Lahiya, referred to as the “Metro.”

Military spokesman Hidai Zilberman said in a radio interview on Friday morning that Israel was also targeting senior Hamas figures. “It disturbs them a lot. We see it in their operational behavior which has become much more hasty,” Zilberman said.

Israel has not invaded Gaza as of Friday, though officials said the evening before that a ground assault on the enclave was underway. Israeli media has suggested that the false announcement of the invasion through an English-language spokesman was a deliberate diversionary tactic.