When Hamas leaders triumphantly declared that their landslide victory in the Palestinian elections was "God's will," was the militant Palestinian faction signaling the birth of a new Islamic regime, akin to the one that rules Iran, on the doorstep of the Jewish state? Pundits from New York to Tel Aviv concluded that we'd seen the birth of "Hamastan" and warned of dire consequences.

It's time to take a deep breath and look carefully at what this upset of the long-dominant Palestinian leadership really means. The Hamas victory should not have shocked anyone, even if its scope was somewhat surprising. Nor will it spell the end of the peace process, which died a number of years ago. And if Gaza looks increasingly like Kabul, it's more because of the ongoing low-intensity war between the Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian militants than because of Hamas's supposedly rigid religious conservatism.

Don't get me wrong: Hamas is a terrorist organization and a very conservative, religious movement. But it is also much more.

Its rise to a dominant role in Palestinian society stems from two related factors: The utter failure of the Palestinian National Authority to achieve either independence or any improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians, and second, to Hamas's years of patient work building schools, medical clinics, and providing other services that the corrupt and chronically underfunded PA couldn't provide.

This may seem a strange argument to make about a group that is officially committed to Israel's destruction. Its political platform, which is filled with religious imagery and Qur'anic quotations, lauds its "jihad fighters," states that the movement "draws its guidelines from Islam," and describes Palestine as a "sacred waqf" (religious endowment), no part of which can be traded or relinquished. Moreover, Hamas uses the most extreme form of violence--suicide bombings--to fight against its enemy. Taken together, these don't seem to bode well for Hamas negotiating in good faith with Israel toward a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Yet there are many other factors to consider before judging Hamas to be incapable of making peace with Israel. Three are particularly important.

Can Hamas bend?
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First, although Hamas's religious and political ideology has not changed much in 20 years, the movement's leaders have become increasingly pragmatic in their political strategy.

Just as some of the Israeli settlement movement's most ardent supporters are now willing to compromise as part of a final settlement, Hamas leaders have for at least a decade talked openly (if inconsistently) about a long-term "truce" with and de-facto recognition of Israel, if it satisfies the most important Palestinian demands: withdrawal of the majority of Jewish settlements from Palestinian land, allowing East Jerusalem's Palestinian neighborhoods to be under Palestinian rule, and offering a token but symbolically important recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel.

Such a truce is not unprecedented in Muslim history. In the case of Muslims and Europe, this approach has opened the door for treating a land that was once enemy territory as a "dar al-'ahd," or land of the truce, and even "dar al-Islam," or land of peace. Even in the most recent Palestinian intifada, a senior Hamas intellectual explained to me that talk of returning to a "one-state"--combined Jewish and Palestinian state--was nonsense. "Are you crazy?" he asked. "We want a divorce from the Jews, not to live more closely together. Just leave us alone, please."

This points to a second important factor: the seeming contradiction between Hamas's willingness to use violence and to compromise politically. Because of the American experience with al-Qae'da and other radical Islamist groups that combine violence and a rigid ideology with an utter disregard for improving their people's lives, it's hard for most Americans to conceive of a group that can be violent and pragmatic at the same time.