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.

But the reality is that states and political movements (including the U.S. and the pre-1948 Zionist movement) have always combined the two. In fact, Hamas's religious and political ideology allows for compromise precisely because unlike al-Qa'eda or other "pan"-Islamic groups, which have no allegiance to any particular country and see themselves as representing a universal "ummah," or Muslim nation, Hamas has always defined itself as a "distinct Palestinian movement." Because of this, the needs and political desires of the Palestinian people will trump larger religious ideals. Its popularity owes in good measure to its willingness to put the concrete needs of its followers ahead of a single-minded focus on achieving its political goals.

Such a distinction is what led one Hamas leader to respond to questions about the discrepancies between its founding charter and current electoral platform by explaining that "the charter is not the Qur'an." That's why its platform for this week's elections could remove any reference to destroying Israel (although it did retain the "right" to violent resistance).

The willingness to use extreme violence doesn't have to be grounded in religious belief or correspond to a desire to destroy the enemy. As was brilliantly demonstrated in Hany Abu-Assad's riveting new film "Paradise Now," suicide bombers act from feelings of extreme weakness, not strength. Suicide bombing becomes the ultimate "weapon of the weak," used by people who feel they are dead already and have nothing to lose by making a much more powerful enemy at least feel some of their pain.

These feelings of despair can be manipulated by a religious ideology, but they're not essentially religious. While Hamas has been expert at weaving the two together, its task now that it has gained power is to create new and more positive channels for venting Palestinian anger at the political stalemate with Israel and the economic and social deterioration in the Palestinian territories.

How does Hamas translate "God's will"?
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The third reason why Hamas's victory does not spell the creation of an Islamist "Hamastan" is that Palestinians know from the own hard experience that neither Hamas nor any other force can destroy Israel. Whatever Palestinians might desire, it's not a realistic option. The majority of Palestinians who voted for Hamas did so for practical reasons; they were fed up with their government's corruption and incompetence and its failure to achieve independence.

This doesn't mean that Hamas won't make Palestinian society more religious or conservative. But it will only succeed in imposing such a vision of Palestinian society if it fights corruption, improves the economy, ends anarchy, and wins concessions at the bargaining table. Moreover, comparisons to Iran or Afghanistan don't work, because those Islamist "states" came into being through the murder of tens of thousands of their people in order to impose their extreme religious vision on their society. It is inconceivable that Hamas, with its long history of cooperating with other Palestinian factions, would use such violence against its fellow citizens, or that Palestinian society would stand for it.

And here religion can play a positive role. For besides being a resistance movement, Hamas--like Lebanon's Hizabollah and other Islamist movements (but not, it should be stressed, al-Qa'eda and its offshoots)--has long seen itself as dedicated to achieving social justice and providing for the welfare and social services.

This commitment is rooted in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization out of which Hamas was created in 1988, and is the primary reason for its popularity.

The problem is that its claims to social justice and welfare are incompatible with its use of terrorism. When Hamas leaders speak of its victory as "God's will," they need to figure out what that will is. Is it to "destroy Israel," as its covenant demands and as some leaders continue to say is the movement's goal? Or is it to build a viable democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza?

How Hamas answers these questions will determine whether the movement can follow the path of South Africa's ANC and Northern Ireland's IRA and transform itself from a movement of resistance to a government that is midwife to the birth of an independent Palestinian state.

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