Gaza war gives Hamas shot in arm, but for how long?

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Hamas may have haemorrhaged rockets and fighters, but its latest war with Israel has boosted its popularity in the Gaza Strip even if long-term gains look remote, analysts say.

A 72-hour truce entered its second day on Wednesday, a lull in four weeks of bitter fighting which killed more than 1,860 Palestinians, of whom the UN says at least 1,312 were civilians.

Israel lost three civilians -- one of them a Thai agricultural worker -- and 64 soldiers, a staggering number for an offensive in Gaza and its worst loss since the 2006 war against Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The conflict followed a period of protracted isolation for Hamas, whose rule in Gaza has been choked by an eight-year Israeli blockade and withering ties with Cairo since the Egyptian army deposed its Islamist ally, president Mohamed Morsi.

Founded in 1987, Hamas won elections in 2006 in Gaza before taking power in the enclave a year later, and is classified by the EU and the US as a "terrorist" group.

Mired in economic crisis, Hamas was in April forced to reconcile with Fatah, the rival Palestinian nationalist movement, and hand over the reins of power in Gaza to a Ramallah-based government.

But experts in Gaza say the group clawed back some respect during the war.

The conflict showed off the movement's military prowess. Estimates vary as to its size, but the British-based International Institute for Strategic Studies believes Hamas has 20,000 fighters.

Hamas fired 3,360 rockets at Israeli towns and cities. Even if the vast majority were intercepted by Israel's missile defence system, some fell near Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion international airport, forcing a 24-hour suspension of US and other European flights.

Adnan Abu Aamir, professor of political sciences at Al-Umma University, said the war proved Israel had been unable to crush Hamas militarily or politically, despite the blockade.

"The conduct of Hamas fighters has impressed everyone," he told AFP.

That Hamas inflicted relatively heavy losses on Israel means its "popularity has risen among Palestinians", says Jamal al-Fadi, professor of international relations at the University of Gaza.

- A difficult position -

But Paul Schulte, a senior research fellow at the department of war studies at King's College London, questioned what Hamas had been able to achieve other than embarrassing Israel.

With talks on a permanent ceasefire scheduled to get under way in Cairo, Hamas demands that Israel and Egypt reopen the border crossings, lifting the siege on the tiny Palestinian enclave.

"None of the objectives that Hamas has set seem deliverable," Schulte told AFP.

He believes that popularity will ebb in the medium term, with little sign that the blockade will be lifted or that Hamas will become any less isolated in the Arab world.

Beyond the deaths of so many Israeli soldiers, "the week after, months after, there will be this question of what has been achieved", he said.

"Given the hostile attitude of the new Egyptian government and the Gulf monarchies, all they have is Iranian support. But since their demand to break the Israeli blockade seems to have failed, they are facing a very unpromising situation, and this will not eventually go unnoticed by the population of Gaza."

George Giacaman, professor at Bir Zeit University and director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, agrees.

"It is still too early to talk about a strengthening of Hamas's role because that depends a great deal on what comes later," he said.

"The demands of Hamas and the Palestinian factions are hitherto the key demands of Gazans, and taking them on has bolstered Hamas but if results don't tally with attacks then Hamas won't come out stronger, quite the contrary," he added.

Wajih Abu Zarifa, professor at Palestine University, said Hamas should distance itself from Egypt's now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, improve relations with Cairo and cement its reconciliation with the PLO.

"Hamas needs to take progressive steps to prove it is a Palestinian national movement and... cut any ties to the Brotherhood because it is outlawed in Arab states," he said.

That could "open the gate for improving relations with Egypt" and bolster support among other Arab nations for its place in the Palestinian political landscape.