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The group of reservist paratroopers returned all astir: Hamas fought like an army. The comrades of Sergeant-Major (Res.) Ehud Efrati, who fell in a battle in Gaza about two weeks ago, told Amos Harel that "in all parameters, we are facing an army, not gangs." The soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces were impressed by their enemy's night vision equipment, the tactical space they kept between one another - and their pants even had elastic bands to make them fit snugly around their boots. This is good news from Gaza.

First, it is good that reservists were sent on this mission because "if these missions were left to the regular soldiers, no one on the home front would understand what's happening in Gaza," one of them said. Indeed, the time has come for the soldiers to speak out. But the news the soldiers brought is also encouraging on several other levels. According to their descriptions, a Palestinian Defense Force has emerged. Instead of a rabble of armed gangs, an orderly army is coalescing that is prepared to defend its land. If it makes do with a defensive deployment against Israeli incursions, we will again have no moral claim against them: Hamas is entitled to defend Gaza, just as the IDF is entitled to defend Israel.

The coalescence of an army also ensures that if Israel tries to reach an accord with the Hamas government - the one and only way to stop the firing of Qassams - there will be someone in Gaza to prevent the firing. An armed and organized address in the chaos of Gaza also means good news for Israel. But the respect the reservists felt for the way Hamas fought is liable to trickle down deeper. "The Palestinians never looked like this," the surprised soldiers told Haaretz. Perhaps we will finally stop calling them "terrorists" and refer to them as "fighters." A bit of respect for the Palestinians and, in particular, an end to our dehumanization of them is liable to mark the beginning of a new chapter.

Furthermore, the fact an army has arisen in Gaza, if this assessment is correct, is liable to prevent another large-scale, ground-based military operation with its many casualties and futility. Perhaps the reservists' reports will dissuade the defense minister from carrying out his plan to conquer Gaza and will motivate Israel to try, for the first time, a different approach with Hamas - negotiations. Only the recognition of Hamas' strength is liable to persuade Israel to be cautious about another operation, and only its military buildup will make us understand the full stupidity of the boycott policy that was designed to weaken Hamas.

We have always acted this way. Without violent Palestinian resistance, life in occupying Israel is great and no one pays any attention to the need to end the occupation. No resistance - no Palestinians. No terrorism - no progress. If not for the Qassams, no one would give any thought to life in Gaza after the disengagement. Ours is a country that has been ready to make concessions only after blood is spilled. Since the interim accords following the Yom Kippur War and through the withdrawal from Lebanon and the disengagement, Israel has needed a relatively strong enemy to get its act together. If not for Hezbollah, we would still be in Lebanon; if not for Hamas, we would still be in Gaza.

Now the time has come for the next chapter: Did we think leaving Gaza and imprisoning it was enough for life in Israel to be hunky-dory? Hamas comes along and reminds us that this does not suffice. The West Bank is quiet in the meantime? Until an organized and strong resistance movement is revived there, we will not consider evacuating even one little outpost. We will conduct talks every two weeks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, we will go to Annapolis, but we will not discuss, heaven forbid, the "core" issues there. And our terrific lives will continue, while in the West Bank the masses will crowd together at the checkpoints for hours, be subject to humiliation and risk their lives every time they go outside.

These words are not meant to encourage another wave of Palestinian terror. They are intended to try to motivate us, for the first time, to move beyond our usual habits and reach the conclusion - this time without bloodshed - that the occupation cannot continue forever. Perhaps the news about the elastic bands on the Hamas men's pants will do it for us, and the next cycle of violence will be averted.