Israel's stated intention of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip is posing new questions - and apparent opportunities - for Hamas, the militant Islamist group.
Hamas's leaders say they are seeking to translate the movement's wide street popularity into a role in decision making previously monopolized by Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, which is now racked by internal crisis.
A growing sense of chaos within the Palestinian Authority and Fatah was accentuated Tuesday when masked gunmen shot dead Khalid al-Ziban, a veteran journalist and human rights adviser of Mr. Arafat in Gaza City.
The incident came days after the PA mayor of Nablus, Ghassan Shaka, announced his intention to resign, citing lawlessness there, and after Israeli forces raided banks in the commercial capital of Ramallah last week.
"While the US is stressing security for Israel, Palestinian daily life is deteriorating - and this is empowering Hamas and marginalizing moderates," says Said Ghazali, a Palestinian journalist and analyst. "If this continues, and it will continue, moderation in Palestinian society will become a thing of the past."
Hamas's statements - and actions - in recent months have been self-confident, even defiant toward the PA, of which Fatah is the backbone. In December, it torpedoed PA attempts to forge a unilateral Palestinian cease-fire so that Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia could try to relaunch peace negotiations. And last week, in unusually blunt terms, it flatly rebuffed a call by Mr. Qureia to suspend attacks during International Court of Justice deliberations on Israel's West Bank security barrier.
Boosted by its role at the forefront of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel, Hamas insists that its growing strength be acknowledged by Fatah. "The brothers in the PA and Fatah must recognize the reality of the changes and what is incumbent upon them," Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas's political bureau told Quds Press. "They must accept genuine participation of the resistance factions and forces and go beyond the mentality of marginalizing them."
A December poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that Hamas has overtaken Fatah as the most popular political grouping in the Gaza Strip. The poll, with a sampling error of 3 percent, gave Hamas 26 percent of popular support compared to 24 percent for Fatah. The largest group was unaffiliated at 33 percent. In the center's last poll before the intifada, in July 2000, Fatah tallied 42 percent and Hamas 11 percent.
At Gaza's Islamic University, Sharif Abu Shamalla's mood is buoyant as he holds court in his cramped office. A student councilor for Hamas's Islamic Bloc group, which controls the council, he is surrounded by the symbols of Hamas power: a portrait of the movement's spiritual leader, a map of historic Palestine, and a screensaver of Mahmoud Issa, a Hamas fighter assassinated by Israel last year.
Most of the 130 students from the university who have died during the last three years of fighting have been from Hamas, Mr. Abu Shamalla says. But he insists the movement is advancing not only because it is at the forefront of "armed resistance" - for Hamas, the killing of Israeli soldiers and civilians alike - but also because it strives to serve the public's daily needs.
"Palestinians know how to distinguish between the stout and the scrawny," he says in a thinly veiled jibe at Fatah. "When we solve people's problems, it reflects positively on the movement." At the university, Hamas provides aid to needy students, offers emergency housing for students stranded in Gaza City by army road closures, and even subsidizes rents.
Across town, at the Palestinian Engineers Association, where Hamas swept all nine Gaza seats in December, ousting Fatah, a picture of Arafat overlooks the desk of executive member Mohammed Awad. It belies the reality that a microrevolution has taken place.
Asked to explain the Hamas victory, Mr. Awad says: "The engineers think this change will help them solve their problems." The PA has been unable to deliver jobs since the start of the intifada, he noted. An engineer who says she is politically unaffiliated, but has voted Hamas, indicated that another factor was charismatic Hamas lecturers at the Islamic University's engineering college. "They affect you with their opinions and thoughts. They have a way of talking that makes you believe in them. Their candidates said, 'Help us to win in this life and the other life. We will do what is best for Islam.' "
A leading Israeli analyst, Avraham Sela, says that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, if implemented, will give Hamas a chance to convert its popularity into power. Traditionally, he notes, Hamas refrained from seeking public office on the grounds that the authority was a creation of the Oslo self-rule accords, which it rejected as a sellout. But now, with Israel speaking of unilateral withdrawal, taking offices would not negate the Hamas ideology, he says.
"All the options are open, but the most likely one is that Hamas will try to come to an agreement with Fatah over power sharing," says Mr. Sela, of the Hebrew University. "The Israeli withdrawal will be a golden opportunity for Hamas to fully participate in the process of decision making."
But Mr. Ghazali believes the only cooperation will be in attacking remaining Israeli targets, not in sharing power. "Hamas will refuse to work under [Arafat's] wing," he says. "But Hamas could work with the young guard in Fatah that is angry at the organization for not getting its share of power."
Mohammed Dahalan, the Fatah former interior minister, who still commands thousands of security forces in the Strip, signaled last week in the Al Ayyam newspaper that as far as he is concerned, Fatah will call the shots after Israel's withdrawal. "We have to view Hamas as a partner in the political future but to achieve that, Hamas must also know that the Authority has the right to take the decisions. Unfortunately, the Authority has lost some of its standing and Hamas is exploiting this and trying to impose an alternative authority."
Mashaal, the Hamas strategist, denies this. Hamas's focus, he insists, is on liberating land, not on the details of a future state. "Hamas poses a danger to the Zionist occupation only," he says.