Militant Palestinians face a dilemma - whether to continue their "resistance" against occupation or participate in a cease-fire that might allow diplomacy to ease or even resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The choice has hung in the air for months. But now, say observers and diplomats, Israel is putting the options more starkly: Accept a cease-fire or face full-bore Israeli attack.
So far, the militants are rejecting that ultimatum. Weekend talks in Gaza between militant groups and Egyptian envoys ended Monday without achieving a cease-fire.
It is no surprise to Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of the militant movement known as Hamas, who last week survived an Israeli assassination attempt.
"I think anyone who will study the history will say there is no chance" for a cease-fire to succeed, he says by telephone from his home in Gaza City. The "history," as he sees it, is Israel's tendency to eviscerate diplomatic attempts to reach a cease-fire by launching attacks on Palestinian militants that also kill civilians.
The Palestinians say such bloodletting makes it politically untenable for the militants to lay down their guns and bombs. In the attempt against Rantisi, Israeli missiles killed a woman bystander and two children.
Although the US criticized as unhelpful Israel's attempt to kill Mr. Rantisi, a Western diplomat here says the Israelis may sense "tacit or implicit" US backing. "Washington's complaint about [the strike against] Rantisi has been essentially a tactical one."
US officials "can't say it's intrinsically wrong because they don't think it is," he adds, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Hamas is a terrorist organization and these are its leaders."
Egyptian and US mediators met Monday with Israeli and Palestinian officials, and EU foreign ministers met with their Palestinian counterpart for the first time in three years, raising hopes for a Palestinian agreement on a cease-fire and an Israeli decision to withdraw its forces from the northern Gaza Strip and perhaps from the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
These steps might allow for a return to the "road map," a US-backed peace plan that represents the only available alternative to continued bloodshed. The road map's inaugural event in early June - a summit meeting in Jordan involving Israel, Palestinian, and US leaders - was almost immediately followed by grisly spasm of violence reminiscent of a year ago.
During the past week, Israeli has killed or sought to kill nearly a half-dozen Hamas militants and leaders, and Hamas sent a suicide bomber into downtown Jerusalem, where he killed 16 people and himself.
A confident Sharon
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking in Israel's parliament Monday, said, "Because of our position, the voices against Hamas in the world are increasing, and there are calls to increase pressure on this murderous group. This is what we have done, and we will continue to do it."
According to an Israeli government cabinet communiqué issued Sunday, Sharon denied any attempt to undermine the diplomatic efforts underway and hinted at US support for Israel's approach. Sharon "explained [to his cabinet] that the US understands that terror will cause the political process - which is seen as crucial - to fail," the statement says.
Meir Litvak, a historian at Tel Aviv University who has studied Hamas, says hardline Israeli tactics aren't the only thing prompting Hamas to consider a ceasefire. He notes that other Arab countries - notably Egypt, whose officials have worked for months toward a ceasefire - are also applying pressure.
But at the same time he says that "Israel cannot totally crush Hamas... It is a fairly large movement and it can always recruit new followers." The organization - its formal name is the Islamic Resistance Movement - has become increasingly popular during the past 32 months of Israeli-Palestinian strife.
In some parts of the Palestinian territories it rivals Fatah, Yasser Arafat's movement, in part because of its unwillingness to compromise with Israel and its willingness to use force to fight Israel's occupation of Palestinians' lands.
Europeans, too, have been pressing the point that Hamas cannot have it both ways - conducting itself as a political party, on the one hand, and blowing up buses with the other. "The West," says the Jerusalem-based diplomat, "particularly now, will never approve of terror as a tool of policy."
Some moderates within Hamas have argued that in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the organization should rethink its tactics. As Hamas West Bank spokesman Hassan Yousef noted to the Monitor in January 2002, "We don't live in another world."
In the wake of the wars the US has led against Afghanistan and Iraq, and the pressure it is now putting on Syria, the wisdom of shirking terrorism is perhaps becoming even more pressing. Add to this President Bush's newfound engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
As the diplomat notes: "One of the things about this White House is black-and-white [thinking and] trying to avoid shades of gray. Hamas is on the wrong the side of that distinction."
But hardliners such as Rantisi insist on the Palestinians' right to resist. "We are under occupation and aggression, and if the US is looking for quiet in the area, they should get the aggressors to stop," he says.
The Israelis defend their actions by saying that when they kill Palestinian civilians, it is in the course of attacks against Palestinian terrorists. Rantisi mainly sees the outcome of such attacks, not their intentions.
"If [the Israelis] are going to continue their aggression against civilians as they did last week," he warns, "then they should expect explosions in Jerusalem and Haifa."