Israel and Hamas stand on the verge of a fourth "war" since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. But these have not been conventional wars like Arab-Israeli battles of the past; they are "asymmetric" wars between unequal parties with no clear battlefield and, often, no clear outcome. Is this the future of Israeli-Palestinian warfare?
Probably. Full-scale war between Israel and an Arab state no longer seems likely. (Syria might be an exception, but is currently in no position to wage war.) The last conventional Arab-Israel war -- almost the last conventional war anywhere -- was in 1973.
Recent wars, in the Middle East as elsewhere, have typically involved what theorists call "non-state actors," meaning revolutionary or insurgent movements like Hamas. Such groups wage "war amongst the people," also defined as Irregular, subconventional, counterinsurgent, guerrilla, hybrid, or asymmetric war. Or one could call these, simply, fuzzy wars.
As the weaker party, Hamas conceals itself among the population of Gaza, using it as cover for its attacks on civilian targets in Israel. This is a situation for which existing international law, developed over the centuries to deal with conventional wars, has no ready answer.
Customary international law is based on protection of civilians and the principle of proportionality in military actions. But in practice Israel cannot target the launch sites of rocket attacks in Gaza without killing civilians nearby.
The issue came up after the first Israel-Hamas war, in 2008-09, when the United Nations issued a report accusing Israel of "direct intentional strikes against civilians." The chair of the investigating committee, Richard Goldstone, later retracted the claim that the civilian casualties were intentional.
But so long as Israel targets launch sites hidden among the population, civilian casualties are inevitable and Israel stands accused of war crimes. By the same token, when Hamas launches crude rockets at Israel cities, it is intentionally trying to kill civilians and even more clearly guilty of war crimes.
Who gains from this confrontation? Clearly it gives Hamas a chance to reclaim the role as champion of the Palestinian cause, whatever the costs to the people of Gaza. It is also timely for Hamas, following the cancellation of planned Palestinian elections in which, by one poll, Hamas was polling at nine percent.
For Israel it gives Bibi Netanyahu the chance to reclaim his image as a strong leader. In fact it has already led to the likely failure of the effort to form a non-Bibi government, as Naftali Bennett seems about to leave those negotiations and lead his party back to Bibi. This result has led some commentators to suspect that the harsh police tactics employed in Jerusalem were not simply a miscalculation.
In all of this, perhaps the most damaging aspect in the long run has been the spread of Arab-Jewish violence within Israel itself. This did not happen in the first three Israel-Hamas wars. And it is a searing indictment of the failure to successfully integrate Israeli Palestinian citizens.
A non-Bibi government would have had to include, at least as outside support, Arab Knesset members. This would have been a breakthrough. Instead we have a crushing and calamitous breakdown.