Much has been said and written about Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW). This refers to asymmetric armed conflict between state and non state actors.
In earlier "conventional" wars between armies, the outcome of combat was determined by surrender, occupation of enemy territory, cease-fires and end of conflict treaties. There were also clear distinctions between civilians and combatants. The Geneva Conventions, which defined international laws of war, were written in the context of this form of warfare. The major Western powers and Russia are the undisputed rulers in the world of conventional wars.
From the Vietnam War and onwards, this type of warfare has evolved into something new, 4GW. This term was coined by William Lind in 1989. Battles and victory are no longer defined by casualties, territory, or sovereignty. There are no clear lines between war and peace, or between civilians and combatants. Rather, we have an ongoing "struggle" or "resistance", whose mere existence is seen by its supporters as victory. Winning is defined in terms of perception, psychology, and on "moral" or ideological grounds. Civilians on both sides are considered by the non-state actor to be "soldiers": On their own side, to be sacrificed for political gains, and on their enemy's side, as legitimate targets whose strategic value is to demoralize the enemy.
In 4GW, the non state actor's strategy and goal is to demoralize and sap the resolve of the state, so that it gives up on the struggle as being "unwinable" or too costly. It does not aim to actually defeat the army of the state in the conventional sense.
In the case of Israel, the Hamas-Iran-Hizbullah axis seeks to continually erode Israel's self confidence, support abroad, and unity of its own people. This presumably would lead to further weakening of Israel's resolve to pursue its national interests. In the end game, Hamas sees that Israel will dissolve from within, through emigration, and social and economic collapse, thus forcing it to evolve into a bi-national Palestinian State, with the Palestinians rapidly overwhelming the Jews. Their model for this "internal rot" is the USSR and Apartheid South Africa (although they did not disappear because of guerilla warfare).
It is clear that in 4GW, from the terrorist non-state actors point of view, short of total annihilation, they can never "lose". If they exist, they win. They live on to hope and continue to struggle.
Their problem is that not all Palestinians share Hamas' point of view in this regard. Hamas' political leaders can continue to celebrate "victory" from within their holes in the ground, but what is the average Israeli or Palestinian to think?
I think that a very simple test is to ask the following question: Of you were an alien landing on earth and had to choose whether to be a Palestinian or an Israeli, what would you choose? A Palestinian, whose land was just ravaged by a foreign army killing thousands of people, while the "fighters" hid underground, to occasionally surface to fire off an ineffective rocket and then go into hiding again? Whose economy is essentially non-existent while the rulers of the land are considers pariahs by most of the world? Whose "fighters" failed to defend its civilians? Or an Israeli, whose economy is modern and thriving, who suffers occasional light civilian casualties from terrorism, and whose army is among the best in the world?
To me the answer is pretty clear. I know that many Palestinians and Hamas supporters do not think like that, but there is nothing we can do about that. Furthermore I think that the difference in perception about this war, incomparison to the Lebanon War, is gaping.
Therefore, any claims of "victory" by Hamas leaders in hiding will sound hollow to most Palestinians. Israelis, on the other hand, love to debate and argue, and particularly like to blame themselves for things not being perfect. Nonetheless, Israel has gained the upper hand for the time being. What the future will bring, only God knows.