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How Israel, Hamas define victory in Gaza

Israel has hit at hundreds of targets across Gaza but has not seriously damaged Hamas's fighting force, which continued to fire rockets on southern Israel on Sunday.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2009

Going in: An Israeli soldier waited Sunday to enter Gaza in the unprecedented invasion into the Palestinian enclave. Hamas militants fired at least 30 rockets on southern Israel on Sunday.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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Tel Aviv

Escalating a week-long assault against Hamas, Israel invaded Gaza over the weekend to stop the Islamist militants who continue to launch cross-border rocket attacks.

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But what victory means for each side still remains vague. The Israeli military says the ground offensive is aimed at eliminating militant rocket-launching sites, destroying weapon caches, and pursuing fighters hiding in the crowded coastal strip.

Will it be satisfied if the militants stop firing rockets or if it destroys the hundreds of tunnels to Egypt that make up Hamas's supply line? Some experts say Israel wants to force a more extensive cease-fire with Hamas, compel the creation of an international peacekeeping force in the coastal strip, or destroy the Islamist group altogether.

For Hamas, survival might be victory. It will be lauded across the Arab world if it can hold out against the region's strongest military.

"One of the most important things in this conflict between state and nonstate actors is what is the meaning of victory?" says Eitan Azani, a former Israeli Defense Forces colonel and a deputy director at the Institute for Counter Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "A lot of people from [Hamas] dying? A collapse? Or most of the operational capability destroyed? This is up for debate. We are in a very complicated situation."

In the 2006 Lebanon war, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah showed the world it could not only survive Israel's superior firepower but that it could confront them on the battlefield. Israel withdrew from the 34-day war with Hezbollah claiming a "divine victory."

So far, Hamas has succeeded in stirring up regional and domestic sympathy under the Israeli pummeling during the first week in the war. But as the fighting continues, the militant group risks seeing its fighting force quickly degraded.

"There may be a push to unseat its hold on Gaza," says Nicolas Pelham, a regional analyst for the International Crisis Group. "It still appears to have retained authority and control in Gaza. There's no internal forces seeking to challenge Hamas."

In the first day of the ground war, Palestinian health authorities reported that 30 Gazans had been killed in the fighting, many of them civilians, according to news wires. An Israeli military spokesperson said that one Israeli soldiers had died in the fighting and three were seriously wounded. Since the operation began on Dec. 27, at least 500 Palestinians have been killed. The United Nations estimates that at least 100 of the dead are civilians.

On Sunday, human rights organizations warned of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. As a result of the fighting, Gaza City and its main medical center, Shiffa Hospital, have been left without electricity. More than 1 out of every 3 residents are without water and sewage is running in the streets, according to Gisha, an Israeli human rights group.

The ground invasion comes just as international mediators are arriving to the region to begin brokering a cease-fire that is believed to be the seldom-mentioned endgame for both sides.