Support for Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has controlled Gaza since June, has frayed as Israel keeps intense pressure on the thin, coastal strip and its chief Palestinian rival is embracing a language of peace.
A vast majority of Gazans now favor Fatah's path to formal talks with Israel, according to the Ramallah-based Near East Consulting, an independent market research firm. Sixty-one percent of those Palestinians who responded to a November poll also said they see Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), as the legitimate government for the Palestinian people.
While the numbers represent a dramatic drop in its popularity since its overwhelming win in Palestinian polls last year, Hamas remains steadfast in its opposition to new talks, as prescribed in the Annapolis, Md., summit of Arab and Israeli leaders last week.
And yet, say analysts, this potent and still widely influential force must be reckoned with before any lasting agreement can be inked. The catch is, according to the logic of Annapolis, Hamas should be treated as "extremist" until it endorses negotiations with Israel and forswears violence, despite the fact that the group controls a part of the Palestinian territories where 1.4 million Palestinians live.
But critics warn that as long as the US, Israel, and Mr. Abbas's PA shut out Hamas, the peace process will be flawed at best, or, at worst, could trigger intensified fighting.
"There is no concept of how to deal with Hamas. That is part of the big problem with what is going on right now," says Gidi Grinstein, who was part of the Israeli peace team for the 2000 Camp David summit, and is the president of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute.
Through aid, rebuilding PA institutions, and removing Israeli limits to Palestinian movement in the West Bank, peace-process advocates hope to improve the quality of life in such a way that Gazans will be compelled to turn out Hamas.
That assumes, however, a best-case scenario at a time when Hamas still remains strong, despite a drop in opinion polls, and Fatah is fractured, says Mr. Grinstein. "Israel doesn't have a strategy, it is locked between a rock and a hard place. So is Fatah."
Hamas denounced Annapolis, arguing that Abbas gained nothing from attending while Israel and the US improved their international standing.
"The Israelis have tried to show themselves as peacemakers and victims, when, in fact they block all efforts" at a settlement, says Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
Advocates of the current peace process insist that Annapolis has left Hamas further isolated in the region. Sixteen Arab governments – including its Syrian patron – showed up at the conference. Even though many Palestinians support its attacks on Israel, including the use of suicide bombings, Hamas is still viewed as a diplomatic novice, an image reinforced by its inability to win many allies.
Just a few days after Annapolis, four brothers at Gaza City's Al-Qurd Furniture store debated who was to blame for their dying family business and whether renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations held out any hope. While the talks envision the dismantling of the West Bank road blocks, Israel is expected to keep Gaza under a lockdown.
Mahmoud, the eldest, echoed Hamas's accusations that Abbas, the Palestinian president, was helping Israel stifle Gaza economically to pressure the Islamists.
But his younger brother, Wael, disagreed. "Hamas is the one who doesn't care about us. They have to resign or commit to the international community's demands, and let the people of Gaza live."
As Hamas is further marginalized, many observers predict they are likely to employ more violence to reassert themselves, either by sponsoring suicide attacks or intensified rocket attacks on Israel. Some 30 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in the past 10 days as Israel retaliates for cross-border attacks.
Israeli army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Wednesday that preparations are complete for a large offensive in Gaza, but that is likely to carry a cost of hundreds of injured civilians and dozens of Israeli military casualties without assurance of decisive victory.
Some Israelis say talks are the better way. "For the first time in a decade, there is an authority [in Gaza] which is accountable. It both exercises authority and takes accountability," said Giora Eiland, an ex-national security adviser, in an interview with Israel Radio. "It can be a partner for certain things."
But political engagement with Hamas would undermine the standing of Abbas as well as upend the renewed negotiations. Hamas's idea of a final settlement with Israel envisions a long-term truce to be preceded by a unilateral withdrawal from all of the West Bank – a nonstarter for Israel.
A third option would be to back the resuscitation of the Hamas-Fatah unity government and allow Abbas to continue negotiations. Earlier this year, Israel and the West refused to deal with such a government.
While Fatah demands that Hamas first return control over Gaza to the PA, the Islamic militants argue that their election victory in January 2006 and their control over Gaza means that, polls or no polls, they can't be ignored.
"Islamists make up more than 50 percent of the Palestinian population," says Nasser Eddin Eshaer, the top Hamas politician in the West Bank. "Stability will not come without the Islamists."
• Safwat al-Kahlout contributed reporting from Gaza City.