Israel's land offensive – or is it a "land defensive"? – that began Saturday against the rocket-launching Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip brings an intensity of war not seen between Palestinians and Israelis in decades. As in the Middle East in the past, how the war ends will matter more than why it began.
Even if few of the Islamic group's leaders and their 15,000 fighters survive against tens of thousands of Israeli troops, they will have won the contest over the perception of victory. Hamas will continue to have wide support among Gazans who voted it into power and will still seek Israel's destruction with jihadi violence.
That's why it is critical for peace to know Israel's ultimate goal in launching a ground war that both sides could regret.
In coming days, the door-to-door tactics of the Israeli army will reveal that goal – and also help shape talks to end the war. So far, for instance, the Israelis have showered leaflets on northern Gazans asking them to leave their homes. Is that to prepare for a permanent no-rockets zone?
Before a six-month truce ended on Dec. 19, triggering a surge of Hamas rocket fire on Israeli civilians that led to the start of an air bombardment Dec. 27, Israel had talked of wiping out Hamas. But that message changed after the air war started. Now the official goal is to simply dismantle the Hamas infrastructure to launch rockets. That message went off-track last week, however, when Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, said the goal is to "destroy completely [the] terrorist gang."
Having withdrawn from Gaza in 2005, Israel does not want to reoccupy this overcrowded strip of some 1.5 million Palestinians. So what does it plan to leave behind if not a phoenixlike Hamas?
Will it allow the rival Palestinian group Fatah from the West Bank to take over? Will international troops keep guard over areas from which Hamas might be able to launch rockets? Will Israel patrol the Egyptian border to keep out arms shipments?
At the least, Israel may see this war as a way to recover from the debacle of its 2006 Lebanon invasion. That war eroded the image of an invincible Israeli military that could deter foes. Leaving Hamas now able to rebuild a rocket capability would only further erode that deterrence, especially as Iran nears a capability to build nuclear bombs.
But if Israel is hunting down Hamas leaders, where does that leadership end? Israel has even hit regular police who direct traffic. What about civilians who distribute Hamas's social services or Gazans who rally and vote for it? Will Israel need to destroy Gaza to save it?
The fact that Israel barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza is an indication that it wants to control the war of perceptions and also perhaps not have the world watching as it changes goals and tactics during the fog of war.
Time is not on Israel's side. Only 1 in 5 Israelis supported a land invasion. Many European leaders are pushing Israel to end the war soon. Arab leaders who despise Hamas as an Iranian proxy and wink at Israel's moves now can only keep silent for so long against the "Arab street." Barack Obama once talked of negotiating with Hamas.
Israel's long-term survival is at stake if it entered Gaza with muddy goals and with military tactics that could backfire.