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Will anyone take up the offer? The Bush Administration probably won't consider any contact with Hamas until the Gaza leadership mends ties with Abbas' West Bank government. That may yet happen. Though Hamas was merciless against its foes in the first hours of the Gaza conquest, the group declared an amnesty for Fatah's thousands of fighters, including a dozen senior officials. Even after Abbas kicked Hamas out of his government, the group has been careful not to pick fights with him. The group's political leader, Khaled Mashaal, declared that "Abbas has legitimacy ... he is an elected President, and we will cooperate with him in the national interest." From his exile base in Damascus, Mashaal also said Hamas would abide by past resolutions it has signed with Fatah, including one that "honored" previous Palestinian accords with Israel.
THE CASE FOR ENGAGEMENT
Of course, Israelis have no reason to take a figure like Mashaal at his word--and many believe that now is the time to shut out Hamas completely. Israel can punish Hamas by simply choking off supplies going into Gaza, and officials say they have every intention of using this weapon. Sixty percent of Gaza's electricity, 100% of its gas supplies and 40% of its water come from Israel and can easily be shut off. But twisting the screw too far could lead to calamity. John Ging, head of U.N. efforts to provide emergency food supplies to Gaza's residents, points out that "for the past 18 months, the people of Gaza have been living in a situation of relentless decline, and this foments a dynamic of violence, not peace and stability."
Even if cutting off Gaza brings down Hamas, the alternative could prove to be a whole lot worse. If Hamas fails, hard-line jihadist factions, including al-Qaeda, which are flourishing amid Gaza's poverty and misery, may fill the gap. "If Hamas can break the back of these big, powerful clans, then they can bring a measure of order to Gaza," says Nicholas Pelham, an International Crisis Group senior analyst in Jerusalem.
If that happens, it's not unthinkable that Hamas will emerge as a greater force for stability than Abbas' Fatah. For all the funds and assistance that the U.S. and Europe will shower upon Abbas, there is no guarantee that his Fatah forces can turn the West Bank into a beacon of democracy and prosperity. Israeli intelligence officers say they are worried about the possibility of warfare erupting among Fatah's many, often rival militias. And according to Abdul Sattar Kassem, a political scientist at Nablus' an-Najah National University, West Bankers will turn against Abbas if they see fellow Palestinians suffering in Gaza. "This will bring more support for Hamas in the West Bank. People will take the foreign money, but they will whisper their support for Hamas," Kassem says.
That's all the more reason that the U.S. and its partners, in addition to trying to support the Palestinian government in the West Bank, must find ways to bolster responsible leaders in Gaza too. In the short term, that doesn't have to involve direct talks with Hamas leaders like Mashaal and Haniya, which would violate U.S. antiterrorism laws. But Washington can encourage Arab governments in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, to reach out to pragmatic figures like U.S.-educated Ziad Abou Amar, a respected Palestinian academic with good contacts in the West and Gaza. Other go-betweens include doctors, businessmen and engineers, many of whom served in the previous Hamas cabinet. They don't belong to the Islamic movement, but their advice is often heeded by Hamas.
Crushing Hamas may be a chimerical goal, but reforming it need not be, if the U.S., Israel and its allies can devise ways to work with the Islamists in areas of mutual interest. A senior Israeli intelligence officer says, "If Hamas wants to maintain a reasonable life in Gaza, with gas, electricity and food coming in, they'll have to deal with the 'Israeli devil' a hundred times a day." That kind of engagement holds at least as much potential for progress as the U.S. policy of weeding out extremists and dealing only with pliable, so-called moderates. Reaching out to Hamas could curb the militants' extremist behavior toward Israel. Or may end in failure. In the Middle East today those odds are about as much as you can hope for.
Split Personalities. A look at the struggle for the soul of the Palestinian people
Separated by 30 miles, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank no longer share the same government. With Gaza under Hamas control, the U.S. and Israel are putting the West Bank first
The Hamas veteran and former Prime Minister has lost his official title, but he still retains authority in Gaza. He reports to Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal, who lives in Damascus
A co-founder of Hamas in Gaza, he served as Foreign Minister in Haniya's government. Known as a hardliner, he has said Hamas "will not compromise one inch" with Israel
The commander of the military wing of Hamas, he is suspected by Israel of involvement in suicide bombings. He is said to have been seriously wounded by an Israeli airstrike in July 2006
The titular leader of the Palestinians, Abbas has served as President since 2005. He has the backing of the U.S. and Israel, but his Fatah movement has lost credibility with the public
The former World Bank official has been tapped by Abbas as Prime Minister of a new government in the West Bank. Fayyad received his Ph.D. in economics in the U.S. and is well regarded in Washington
Abd al-Razzaq al-Yahya
A longtime commander in the Palestine Liberation Organization, he will serve as Interior Minister in the new Cabinet. A previous stint in that post lasted just four months THE TWO TERRITORIES [This article contains a detailed map and a complex diagram. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]