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WASHINGTON — For generations to come, the Palestinians will remember the horrific war in Gaza with pain and bitterness. But what cannot yet be seen is how Palestinians will view Hamas. Whether Hamas can claim a victory — and whether Palestinians will believe them will be determined by the type of ceasefire that is eventually agreed, if a formal one is eventually agreed. The endgame — for both Israel and Hamas — is thus crucially important.

For the moment, Hamas is perceived by the majority of Palestinians as the victim of a war intended to gain its surrender. After all, Hamas was democratically elected, but was forbidden from ruling and besieged in Gaza. At the same time, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is accused of siding with Israel in order to restore his lost authority in Gaza.

The war exposed flaws in Hamas’ judgment. Hamas apparently did not envision a full-scale confrontation with Israel when it refused to renew a six-month truce. With Gaza suffering under a lengthy siege, Hamas leader Khalid Mashal said that there was no point in a new truce, since the old one had “failed to lift the siege on Gaza.” Other leaders were quoted as saying that Hamas would “lift the siege by force.”

If Hamas is to survive the war, it must demonstrate that its resistance resulted in a permanent opening of Gaza’s border crossings, especially in Rafah. For Palestinians, these are signs of victory. With open borders, Hamas would secure its regime in Gaza and build its popularity in the West Bank, putting enormous pressure on Abbas, the leader of the rival Fatah movement, to accept a national unity government on terms set by Hamas.

Members of Fatah’s Central Committee are already accusing Abbas of supporting Israel in the fighting, of wanting to “return to Gaza on an Israeli tank.” Radical groups within Fatah are leaning toward an open alliance with Hamas.

If Hamas comes out ahead, Abbas’ allies in other Palestinian factions will press him to accept Hamas and Islamic Jihad within the PLO. Egypt will have to backtrack on its rejection of Hamas in order to recover its image among the Arabs and to reduce tensions within Egyptian society. Pressure to integrate Hamas into Palestinian politics is also likely in some European capitals, particularly Paris and London, where some expressed opposition to isolating Hamas even before the war.

But if Israel forces Hamas to accept its conditions for border controls and a formal ceasefire, Hamas’ image as the guardian of Palestinian resistance will be severely damaged. Palestinians will ask if it was really necessary to fight this war and pay such a high price. Abbas will be able to argue that he advised Hamas to renew the truce and to end its missile fire on Israeli towns, but that Hamas insisted on exposing Palestinian civilians to devastation.

One indicator to watch for: the length of that ceasefire. Palestinians will recognize Hamas’ acceptance of a multiyear truce with Israel as a sign of defeat, which would also underscore Palestinian feelings of humiliation and abandonment. Hezbollah, despite its rhetoric, has taken no steps to support Hamas, and the Arab states seemed more than willing to support its defeat.

It is in rebuilding Gaza that the stakes of the competition will increase. Abbas, supported by the United States and the European Union, may have control over significant funding. The test for him will be to deliver quickly. Hamas will also have resources for reconstruction. Qatar, a Hamas supporter, has already announced an investment fund for Gaza and contributed $250 million.

Hamas will have to make a convincing case that Gaza’s near destruction is a price that had to be paid. Many Palestinians believe that Israel attacked Gaza to drive a wedge between the people and the “resistance.” There is a precedent for this argument: Hezbollah described the destruction of Beirut’s southern suburbs in these terms at the end of the Lebanon war in July 2006. More importantly, Hamas can demonstrate that its leaders have been on the front lines during this war, sharing Palestinian suffering; many have been killed, along with their families.

The biggest question is whether the war will alter Hamas’ political goals. Two weeks ago, Musa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, praised Jimmy Carter in the Los Angeles Times as the only American president who had brought true peace in the Middle East.

This is a radical departure from Hamas rhetoric, which has always portrayed the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt as a betrayal of the Islamic world. It remains to be seen whether Abu Marzouk’s view is merely a tactic intended to encourage the Obama administration to reach out to Hamas, or whether the war convinced Hamas that the two-state solution is the only viable option to settle the conflict with Israel.

Mohammad Yaghi is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. © 2009 Project Syndicate

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