A couple of days after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared a halt to hostilities, I met with a few of the many journalists and commentators who roam our streets.
They did not think peace had much of a chance. Hamas had already fired rockets into an Israeli settlement in defiance, and Sharon has long shown he is willing to respond to any provocation with more than equal force. Like all of us here, these journalists had seen many cease-fires and declarations come to nothing. A few of them knew colleagues who had been killed.
The mood was so sour that I -- a children's psychiatrist by profession -- was suddenly struck by the feeling that I was in a counseling session, trying to instill hope in the hearts of traumatized youngsters.
"Do you really trust Hamas to stop terror?" one of the journalists asked me. "Even when they announce that they are not bound by the agreement?"
To his obvious shock I replied, "Yes."
I have spent many years observing Hamas at close range as it has grown from a small Islamic religious movement into a major army. I have been debating politics with its leaders and members for a long, long time. That experience leads me to believe that Hamas will very soon transform into a political party and will seriously contemplate taking over the government by democratic means.
There are sound reasons for my optimism. The first is that Hamas finally has an incentive to halt terrorist activity. For years, its raison d'etre has been military action. But Hamas has just achieved an astounding victory in municipal elections in the Gaza Strip, winning 70 percent of the seats in local councils. Fatah, the ruling party that had long dominated the political scene, was roundly defeated. Hamas has a guaranteed political future when it chooses to abandon the armed struggle.
Furthermore, close observers have noted important signs of change within Hamas over time. From remarks made by its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, before his assassination last year, we understand that Hamas is now prepared to accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And as the recent elections showed, Hamas now participates fully in the democratic process -- something that it once called a Western conspiracy, and even a sin.
Hamas is becoming more organized, more sophisticated and more confident in itself. For example, in the first intifada, Hamas was quick to charge people with collaboration with Israel and to kill them. That was a sign of insecurity. The Hamas of today pledges not to kill fellow Palestinians, but instead urges the Palestinian Authority to enforce its laws.
This confidence has grown as popular support for Hamas has increased, thanks to its wide network of social programs, its incorruptible image, its adherence to Islamic morals and, most importantly, its record of fighting Israel. It is important to understand that while suicide bombings have made Hamas synonymous with terror to many, Palestinians see these tactics as a way to balance the terror Israel shoves down our throats. Many Palestinians express horror at the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas in the streets of Jerusalem, but go on to say, "The Israelis deserve what they get until they stop killing our children."
In short, Hamas has earned its popular support and it does not want to lose that support, nor its role in the future of Palestine. And that is why I believe it will cooperate with Abu Mazen, as Palestinians respectfully refer to President Abbas. It is precisely because Hamas has such a strong grass-roots base that it recognizes that most Palestinians have learned that violence only inspires retaliation.
The leaders of Hamas have repeatedly declared their respect for Abbas and for the democratic process that elected him. And though there have been violent incidents in the past few days by defiant elements, the organization's leaders quickly backed down when the president denounced the attacks.
Abu Mazen's quick response to the breaching of the cease-fire -- besides speaking out against Hamas, he sacked top generals and declared a state of emergency -- reflects a man willing to go beyond the vocabulary of peace. He is showing conviction, courage and determination. In contrast to the late Yasser Arafat, he does not see peace as just one tactic, along with violent struggle, for getting Israel to accept a Palestinian state. While Abbas shares the goal of statehood, he believes that only peace can bring it about.
He is also popular in Israel, polls show -- and I see reasons for optimism on that side of the conflict as well. To illustrate, I concluded my remarks to the journalists with a small story:
Not long ago, I was stopped at a Gaza border crossing along with some colleagues. Inside the fortified post was an Israeli soldier, his face appearing every few minutes through a small opening in the concrete. To my surprise he called me over to ask, "Your friend says you are a psychiatrist. Can I ask you something?" "Yes," I replied warily. The soldier said, "I have a problem, doctor. I live in a settlement in Hebron, and I want to leave."
I hid my surprise and played the psychiatrist, listening calmly as this young man with his baby face and thin beard continued: "My parents want me to stay, but I know it will only lead to more killing. I don't like it there, but I don't want to anger my father and mother who have given their lives for me."
After a moment, I said, "I think it is best if you talk about your feelings with your mother and your father. It will be best if you convince them of your decision. But I want to tell you something else, my friend." The soldier smiled in anticipation as I continued: "By choosing to talk to me about yourself, you made me feel proud of humanity and sure of its future." He stretched his arm through the hole to shake my hand, saying, "I trust you."
We trust each other, I told the journalists -- we must, if there is to be any progress. I believe strongly that in the near future, we will be able to include Hamas in that careful, hopeful trust.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eyad Sarraj is a psychiatrist and human rights activist in Gaza.