The battle of Gaza is over. Though there was no Israeli ground invasion, Israel carried out plenty of airstrikes and Hamas launched plenty of rockets. Arguments will continue over what precipitated this particular battle — whether it was Israel's targeted killing of a Hamas leader or several months of rocket fire by Hamas — but a battle needs no justification. If anything needs justifying it is the war, and each side will tell the tale in its own way, emphasizing its innocence and victimhood.
What made this particular battle interesting to us was Hamas' use of the Fajr-5 rocket. The Fajr-5 has the potential to strike at the Israeli heartland, the Haifa-Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor. We view Hamas' ability to strike at the densest area of Israeli settlement as a shift in the strategic balance.
Hezbollah demonstrated its ability to strike Haifa in 2006 and Israel has tolerated it. However, Hezbollah has been a far more cautious organization since the 2006 war, and it appears far more interested in maintaining its place in Lebanese politics than in seeking a showdown with Israel. Therefore it has not tried to strike the Israeli heartland, and the Israelis have calculated that the cost of intervening against Hezbollah's new capability is greater than the benefit.
Israel's calculus regarding Hamas could have been expected to be different. Indeed, once Hamas began to demonstrate its possession of and willingness to use the Fajr-5, we expected Israel to make much greater efforts to eliminate Hamas' arsenal. It didn't.
Maybe Israel had eliminated all of Hamas' Fajr-5s that had yet to be fired; the airstrikes were intense. But it is worth wondering how Israel could know that all the rockets were destroyed. Intelligence is not a perfect science, to the say the least, and the hardest thing to know is how much you don't know. How confident can Israel be about its intelligence? We ask this because it seems Israel did not know that Hamas had the Fajr-5 in the first place. In other words, Israel already had a major intelligence breakdown when it failed to detect the shipments of Fajr-5s into Gaza. Still, Israel may well know that all of the Fajr-5s have been destroyed.
Alternatively, Israel might simply have determined that a ground attack would not guarantee finding the rockets' storage sites, and that the cost of invasion, both in casualties and in international political fallout, was not worth the effort. Certainly the rockets pose an escalated threat, but as an explosion on an Israeli bus showed shortly before the declaration of a cease-fire, there are more ways to deliver explosives to the heartland than by rocket.
This is central to Israel's strategic problem. Hamas cannot defeat Israel in conventional battle. The unconventional tactic of delivering explosives into Israeli crowds is merely supplemented by the Fajr-5. It makes it easier, if Israeli rocket defenses like the Iron Dome don't change the equation, but you can make the case that delivering them using suicide bombers is more efficient still.
In any case, the Israelis didn't launch a ground attack; on the surface this enhances Hamas' position in two ways. First, it possibly leaves Hamas with a rocket capability it didn't have before. Second, once again Israel could not force a decisive battle.
The simplest principle of warfare is to identify the enemy's center of gravity and fight a decisive battle to destroy it. The challenge Hamas presents is that it has no obvious center of gravity. There is no single element that, if destroyed, will cause Hamas to fail.
If everything is destroyed, Hamas is finished, but Israel lacks the means to destroy everything. Even if it could do so, political consequences to Israel matter and would harm Israel more than rockets. On the other hand, Hamas was not able to inflict the kind of casualties it absorbed. It does not have the ability to fight a decisive battle with Israel, either.
When neither side has the ability to destroy their enemy's will to fight, the war goes on. In the end, it might simply have been this that caused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to not order a ground attack. Whatever benefits there might have been to Israel would have been temporary, and the cost would have been high. Lacking the prospect of a decisive blow, the battle would have ended inconclusively whether Israel attacked on the ground or not.
There were undoubtedly many other considerations and pressures that led to the decision to suspend the fight. The fact that any blow by either side is inconclusive strikes us as the most important. Both sides know they can't impose a military solution. Neither side is prepared to abandon the war. Therefore, the result is a string of endlessly inconclusive battles.