Israel will win a military victory in Gaza, its vastly superior weaponry make that certain. (And Hamas' lack of such weapons does not make them more virtuous; they would surely use them if they had them.) It will, however, suffer a public relations defeat, and Hamas will win by losing. That is no trivial thing. Besides the psychological damage it does to Israelis and their supporters, it will increase pressure by other governments on the United States to reduce support for Israel.
How is it that an organization that puts civilians on rooftops to deter Israeli bombings while its leaders hide in a bunker under a hospital can earn the world's sympathy? It will win the public relations battle despite provoking the attack because it is seen as the underdog, and because civilians, whom it has deliberately put in harm's way, are being killed. Amos Oz recently said: "Hamas' calculation is simple, cynical, and evil: if innocent Israelis are killed-good. If innocent Palestinians are killed-even better."
Israel certainly had the right to defend its people from rocket attacks, but could it have done differently? It should have prepared world opinion for this war by showing the effect of years of rocket attacks by Hamas and its allies (Islamic Jihad, Martyrs Brigade) on the people of southern Israel. The general impression is that almost all the rockets fell harmlessly, so what's the big deal. The anxiety of living under such attacks, and the daily disruptions do not occur to most people. Nor do people realize that there were relatively few casualties not only because the rockets fell at random, but that an early warning system permitted residents of southern Israel to get to bomb shelters in time. Sderot Media produced a compelling video showing what life is like under the constant threat of rockets which can be seen here, but other than YouTube it has not had much circulation.
Israel could also have encouraged sympathetic groups around the world to organize rallies protesting Hamas' rocket barrages. World opinion then would have been alert to the situation and would have put pressure on Hamas.
Of course, Hamas' argument is that they were only trying to end the blockade and sympathy has been with them on that issue because it is true that innocent people were hurt by it. Israel hoped that the deprivations caused by the blockade would cause Gazans to blame Hamas, but that did not happen. Turning the people of Gaza against Hamas would have been much more likely had Israel been generous in supplying food and medicine clearly labeled as coming from Israel. As part of the invasion Israel has been dropping leaflets urging Gazans to turn on Hamas, but that would be more likely if the people perceived Israel as their benefactor rather than their persecutor.
A New York Times story (01/13/09) quotes a Ms. Jaawanah whose son was wounded in the shelling as saying: "Do you think I'm against them (Hamas) firing rockets? No. I was against it before. Not anymore."
Hamas can be suppressed militarily, but it cannot be eliminated as long as they enjoy the support of the people of Gaza. Their supply lines can be crushed and most of their members captured or killed, but as long as Gazans see Hamas as their voice new recruits will join, new supply lines will be found. This is what the U.S. has learned in Iraq.
The only way to subdue Hamas would be to turn Palestinian public opinion, especially in Gaza, against them.
Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because they rejected peace with Israel, though that is Hamas' position. They voted against the PLO because they saw it as corrupt and because the PLO despite being open to a peaceful, two-state solution, did not seem able to accomplish it. If Israel gives hope to their aspirations, they would likely vote against the rejectionist Hamas and thus deprive it of legitimacy. And if they saw Hamas standing in the way of peace more than Israel they would deny them much of the support they need to carry on terrorist attacks. The only sure way to do that would be to find the will to begin dismantling the settlements because both the settlements and Hamas are incompatible with a two-state solution, and therefore with peace.