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There is nothing more intoxicating, more soul-stirring, nothing more thrillingly, unstoppably transcendent, than nationalism.

Until, that is, the moment you begin to become a nation.

Take the Palestinians. Take this week.

Time was, if a large explosion rocked the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, killing a Hamas official and wounding his small son, you knew at once where to point the finger. Directly at Israel.

Time was, if a government was in crisis over partitioning the Holy Land, over a future Palestinian state, over a national unity government, over the borders of the West Bank, over a referendum to decide the issues, you knew precisely whose government was in crisis - Israel's.

Time was, if a cabbie growled "If it wasn't for the other side, the enemy, we'd be tearing each other to pieces," you could be absolutely certain the cabbie was Israeli.

Well, times have changed.

And the Palestinians, whether they like it or not, are changing, too. At this point, the times are giving them little choice.

For the first time since 1947, the Palestinians are facing the fundamentals of a real Partition Plan.

Hamas, a force for unvarnished maximalism since its founding in 1987, suddenly feels pressure at home to take a step seen as implicitly recognizing Israel.

Time always seemed to be on Hamas' side. Turns out that even time can switch sides.

Money, or lack of it, to pay salaries and provide for social welfare, is only one factor. Civil war is the next.

On Friday, gunmen, apparently from Hamas, shot and killed a senior officer in the Preventative Security Service, a Palestinian Authority agency closely linked to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his ?Fatah.

On Saturday, a force of some 2,500 Fatah militants deployed in Jenin as a new security arm, further escalating tensions with Hamas.

Later, in an apparent Fatah assassination operation, gunmen seriously wounded a junior commander in the Hamas military wing.

On Monday, two more apparent Fatah assassination operations were carried out in the Strip. In Jabalya, a large explosion ripped through a house, killing Hamas member Ahmed Sari and wounding his son, 8.

Earlier in the day, masked gunmen fired on a car carrying a Hamas gunman and his wife, 20, who was eight months pregnant. Both were killed in the hail of fire.

Through it all, Abbas has been pushing the Prisoners' Document, authored in part by Fatah leader-turned-lifer Marwan Barghouti and jailed representatives of Hamas and three other Palestinian factions.

In a rare case of Hamas misreading Palestinian public opinion - perhaps the surest sign of the transition into government - the fundamentalist movement was quick to oppose the document.

A poll this week showed that on the critical plank of the document, fully 83 percent of Palestinian respondents said they supported the creation of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 war borders of the West Bank and Gaza.

The clause is widely seen as expressing implicit recognition of Israel, a step Hamas has sought desperately to sidestep.

Worse still for Hamas, the poll showed a dramatic drop in support for the movement, until recently - until taking office - a supremely popular political force.

Only 37 percent of respondents said they would vote for Hamas if elections were held now, down from a full 50 percent in April. In the January election, Hamas won nearly two-thirds of the parliamentary seats up for grabs.

The Palestinians now are facing issues which recall those that the Zionist movement faced in 1947, on the eve of the creation of a state.

At the time, David Ben-Gurion, leader of the predecessor of the Labor Party, favored a plan under which the Holy Land would be partitioned into two states, one Jewish, one Arab.

He was bitterly opposed by the hardline Menachem Begin, commander of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi underground, and the more radical Lehi, commanded by Yitzhak Shamir.

Though Ben-Gurion was a maximalist by nature, he argued that creating a small state when the chance presented itself, was vastly preferable to holding out indefinitely for an ideological ideal that might never be realized.

It's a point that, to the consternation of Hamas, and of many hardline contemporary Israelis, Palestinians may well have now taken to heart.