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ANALYSIS-Victory elusive for both Israel and Hamas

JERUSALEM, Jan 11 (Reuters) - When the firing eventually stops in the Gaza Strip, the question of "who won?" will hang heavily over the death and destruction. Neither Israel nor Hamas will be able to answer it with any certainty or immediacy.

Israel says it launched its offensive on Dec. 27 to put a stop once and for all to Hamas's firing of rockets and mortars over the border into southern Israeli towns and cities. That objective, at least, has been stated very clearly.

Yet after two weeks of fighting, the rockets -- more than 4,000 of which have been fired since 2001 -- are still coming, even if in far fewer numbers than two weeks ago. Israel believes the Palestinians are still capable of firing 200 rockets a day.

A ceasefire in which Hamas agrees to halt rocket fire might well be struck, but the chance of it holding forever, as Israel would like, is next to nil, and there are other militant groups in Gaza which could violate the deal, reigniting the conflict.

Israel also wants a "mechanism" to stop arms smuggling into Gaza from Egypt and thus starve Hamas of rocket materiel. But it is unclear what this would entail, not least as Cairo has balked at calls for international forces on its side of the frontier. That is why some Israeli leaders argue the operation needs to go much further and seek to destroy Hamas completely, killing off its leadership and causing so much hardship in Gaza that the population turns against the Islamists they elected in 2006.

Yet eradicating Hamas is a much tougher objective and one that Israel is unlikely to achieve in the time left before it has to give in to international pressure and halt operations.

So if Israel can't wipe out Hamas or completely halt rocket fire, what will it be able to show for weeks of fighting in which some 850 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died, and international condemnation has been heaped on the Jewish state?

STRATEGIC ERROR?

While acknowledging Israel's need to tackle the rocket threat from Hamas, U.S. security analyst Anthony Cordesman argues that its strategy could backfire.

"It is far from clear that the tactical gains are worth the political and strategic cost to Israel," he wrote in commentary for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve?

"Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel's actions seriously damage the U.S. position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices?

"To be blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes," he wrote.

Israel believes it has succeeded in reducing Hamas's ability to fire rockets, proved its "deterrence" capability, killed many Hamas commanders and perhaps made more Palestinians in Gaza question the wisdom of the strict Islamist group's behaviour.

All of which, combined with the possibility that Hamas might eventually submit to a ceasefire, appears to be giving Israeli military and political leaders the reassurances to carry on.

Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai said on Sunday: "We have scored achievements no one dreamed of two weeks ago.

"As for the blow to Hamas, they still don't understand what they've sustained. They'll understand better when they emerge."

So far Israel's Jewish majority is wholeheartedly behind the leadership, but the concept of victory -- so desperately sought after the inconclusive 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and so necessary for national pride -- remains distant.

STILL POPULAR?

Likewise, Hamas can hardly declare itself an outright winner, either now or once the guns have fallen silent.

As Hezbollah did after its 34-day war with Israel, Hamas may well cast itself as the underdog that held off the might of the hi-tech, U.S.-sponsored Israeli army, and draw praise for that.

But for all those Palestinians in Gaza who will feel pride at the resistance Hamas put up, others will gaze at the ruined buildings and freshly dug graves and wonder if it was worth it.

When the Palestinians held legislative elections in early 2006, Hamas defeated its long-dominant rival Fatah.

Fatah was tainted by corruption and failure to meet the needs of the 3.9 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas, on the other hand, was widely regarded for charity work and held in popular esteem for its fiery probity and piety.

Hamas had also dented Israeli security with sprees of suicide bombings. Now its fighters are better known for firing rockets -- both homemade and imported -- into the Jewish state.

President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader whose writ extends only to the West Bank since Hamas routed his forces in Gaza in 2007, has promised parliamentary and presidential elections -- but Hamas no longer accepts his legitimacy and it is not clear when Gazans will have another chance to elect their leaders.

Israel and the West want Palestinians to shun Hamas, with its ultimate goal of destroying Israel, and rally round Abbas and "moderates" ready to negotiate peace -- even though past diplomacy has brought Palestinians no closer to statehood.

Some allies, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy who is trying to broker a ceasefire, have told Israel it risks weakening Abbas in favour of radicals like Hamas by fighting.

As Hamas's leader in exile Khaled Meshaal told Israelis on Saturday: "You have created resistance in every household."

Expect both sides to claim victory when the war ends. Whoever is deemed the winner, civilians will have paid the price. (Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Michael Roddy)

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