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On Sunday, at 9 P.M., the nation was watching. The Hamas cease-fire was due to go into effect, and all eyes turned to the television screens to see where the next rocket would fall. "Will they keep the cease-fire?" the commentators asked and rushed to answer: "Of course, we cannot depend on that." After all, Hamas is perceived to be a mad organization whose actions lack military or political reason.

However, Hamas has for some time now been more than an organization, and at least in the eyes of the Israeli government, it is also a government, which Israel considers responsible for everything that happens in the Gaza Strip. It does not matter whether organizations like Islamic Jihad or the Popular Resistance Committees, "the Palestinian Army of Islam" or some freelancers fire on Israel. Hamas is the address to ensure there is calm in the Strip. This is something one sovereign state requires of another, and of one from whose territory hostile actions are initiated. This is how Israel behaves when it comes to Egypt, which it justifiably considers responsible for what takes place in Sinai, and that is how it perceives the governments of Lebanon and Syria when it comes to Hezbollah.

It's a security deal Israel cuts with Hamas, and not with the other groups, and not even with the Palestinian Authority. After all, there is no point in demanding control over the Strip from the PA, and not only because of its inability in practice to control the area. Israel's political logic holds that it is preferable to conduct direct or indirect dialogue with Palestinian groups rather than a Palestinian state. It's an efficient method that does not require withdrawal from the territories, discussion of the right of return or official recognition of Hamas. It's also convenient for Hamas, which has built up a deterrent against Israel and can carry on running its affairs with the PA without feeling threatened or having to recognize Israel.

So both Hamas and Israel share a common interest - that Hamas continue to run the Strip so long as it manages to keep the violent opposition at home at bay. On the face of it, Israel could not have expected a more successful partner for managing the occupation. Because Hamas has the power to determine not only the military agenda but also the political agenda of Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas succeeded in shaking the Israeli public when it kidnapped Gilad Shalit and caused Israeli governments to negotiate with it indirectly. It also managed to get Israel in trouble with Turkey, and as we saw this week, also to force itself into the fragile relations between Israel and Egypt.

The signing of the reconciliation agreement with Fatah strips Mahmoud Abbas of the ability to decide independently on establishing a Palestinian state, or even a Palestinian government, without Hamas. As long as Israel is fighting recognition of an independent Palestinian state, the partnership between Hamas and Fatah serves Israel's agenda. It can wave on the international scene the Hamas threat to torpedo a Palestinian state, and it can rely on Hamas to provide Israel with pretexts for blocking the diplomatic process. Because, without the Gaza Strip there is no Palestinian state and without Hamas there is no Gaza.

Thus, Israel and Hamas have succeeded in transforming Hamas into one of the core issues to be resolved ahead of an agreement. As far as Israel is concerned, this is a safe "core issue," because it carries no international pressure to recognize Hamas. Hamas is the best guarantee Israel has at this time for preserving the status quo vis a vis the Palestinians. The result is that anyone who talks about destroying Hamas undermines the strategic interest of Benjamin Netanyahu. Without Hamas there is no excuse for delaying a Palestinian state.

This is the sort of exceptional status to which every group aspires. Hezbollah is following a similar policy. Both groups have an independent existence, but have been smart enough to make use of the nature of Israel's rejectionist policy to build themselves up to a level much greater than that of just a group.

"Will Hamas keep the cease-fire?" The question is repeated, granting Hamas the final say. Israel itself could have answered the question were it to hold real negotiations with the PA, and in September have agreement on the nature of an independent Palestinian state. Now, it will have to rely on Hamas as if it was a life jacket. Absurd? Just foolishness.