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After the attempt on Abdel Aziz Rantisi's life and the assassinations of the heads of the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, Israeli sources claimed that "Hamas is in a panic," and the organization "is under heavy pressure to agree to a cease-fire."

But, in Gaza, it was possible to see how little truth there was to these statements. While some Hamas leaders "went underground," it was only for a day or two.

Going underground appeared to be mostly an excuse to avoid reporters and TV crews. Afterward, those same leaders, including Rantisi, received visitors at their homes.

Their neighbors did not leave in a panic and, as far as is known, they were not told to leave. The Azzadin al-Qassam people continued to appear in public. They also did not cease firing Qassam rockets.

It was also difficult to see that Hamas felt any pressure in the wake of the international demands on it. On the contrary, it was on the verge of accepting a cease-fire before the assassination attempt on Rantisi and before the Aqaba summit. Only afterward did the voices inside the movement, opposed to a cease-fire, grow louder.

Before Aqaba, Hamas prisoners and Hamas detainees in Ashkelon Prison sent a joint letter with Fatah prisoners in which they called for a stop to granting Israel "excuses" to harm the Palestinian people. That formulation is code for a call for a cease-fire.

After Aqaba, the Hamas prisoners were the first to call on their leadership outside the prison to suspend talks with Abu Mazen, meaning cease discussion of his demands/requests for a cease-fire.

The prisoners were among the first whom the organization consulted after it met for clarification talks with Abu Mazen's government representatives and when the Egyptians came for another mediation effort in Gaza. By all accounts, the various pressures worked in reverse and stiffened positions. With the enormous popular support that Rantisi enjoys, the Hamas activists didn't feel any pressure from the Palestinian public.

Indeed, Hamas renewed the internal discussions on the matter of the cease-fire from a position of strength in the Palestinian political arena and out of awareness of its strength in Palestinian society. Those siding with a cease-fire are saying, among other things, that it must be an initiative of Hamas and not merely a reaction.

They also say the movement has the duty to keep in mind the material concerns of their people - from food and lodging to education and work. In the same breath, they explain that they should not be dragged unthinkingly after the popular position in the Palestinian public (as they assess it and say it appears in public opinion polls), which is for a continuation of the military operations and attacks, because "the Israelis grow tired more than the Palestinians."

Palestinian life nowadays is more than ever characterized by two central, negative phenomenon-facts: One is that, after the failure of the Oslo process and three years of bloodshed and destruction, the Palestinian public does not believe Israel is interested in a peace that will enable the Palestinians an independent life and takes into consideration their national and human rights.

The other phenomenon is the corrupt, arbitrary method of government by the Palestinian Authority. If there are reforms underway, they still haven't been felt enough to change the prevailing negative opinion of the PA and its senior officials. It's enough to compare the modest homes of the Hamas leaders to the fancy villas of the PA's officials; the gossip about how the children of the senior officials are "in schools overseas," far from any danger; the complaints about the job vacancies in the public sector, which go to cronies and not to the skilled. It's enough to remember the warning issued by Hamas during Oslo, against the illusions propagated by the Palestinian Authority.

But if Hamas wants to guarantee its place as a political power, it must consolidate its position in Palestinian society not only as a lightning rod of counterreactions to these two negative phenomenon. On the one hand, it is a force that attracts those who speak of a struggle unto liberation because they are fed up with meaningless lives under conditions of a foreign occupation and military attacks.

On the other hand, it is a force that is not responsible for the management of government ministries but has a high profile for honesty (in its charities), especially in light of the corruption and hedonism of the officials who owe their positions and wealth to the failed Oslo process - and the privileges that they get from Israel.

Hamas' obvious strength requires the other organizations to speak more seriously than ever about co-opting it into some form of process of national decision-making ("the national leadership" that Rantisi spoke of and which Abu Mazen said Arafat accepts).

That requires Hamas to think about tactics and strategies that are not based only on the promises about the next world and on decisions that go beyond those made by people ready to die in the name of Allah at any time. More than ever, Hamas is preparing itself as a political force in the Palestinian arena.