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Cave in to Hamas and all Palestinians suffer

A victory for Hamas is a setback for Mahmoud Abbas.

The tragic events of the past week are creating renewed pressure for Israel and the international community to change its approach to the Gaza Strip. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is deeply concerning.

However, the dilemmas around dealing with the division in the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas regime in Gaza are not new, and not simple. The same problems have been plaguing both Israel and western governments since Hamas violently expelled Fatah forces from Gaza in 2007.

The goals are clear and shared by Israel, the west and pro-western Arab forces in the region: a unified Palestinian Authority under a leadership committed to negotiating a peaceful two-state solution.

The Quartet and Israel have both rightly been concerned to bolster the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is committed to the peace process, and draw support away from Hamas. Any international endorsement for the Hamas regime in Gaza threatens to embolden radicals in the region and their backers in Iran.

But how is the isolation of Hamas regime in Gaza to be achieved without the toll being taken on ordinary Palestinians in Gaza? Israel has not succeeded in finding the right formula, but neither have other governments.

For Israel, this issue has an added dimension.

Hamas is not only an organisation opposing the peace process and allied to Iran and other anti-western forces, it is a militia force that has waged a war of attrition with rockets against towns in southern Israel.

As a result, Israel treats Gaza under the rule of Hamas as enemy territory, and allows only basic humanitarian goods in. It blockades the coastline to stop Iran's shiploads of rockets, such as the Francop, which was captured by Israel last year, reaching Hamas.

The only other state with a border on to Gaza is Egypt, which views Hamas to be no less a threat to its own security. It has been refusing to open its border without Hamas first agreeing to a Palestinian unity agreement and new elections.

Israel's policy has had a very damaging affect on Gaza, but can Hamas expect to enjoy full co-operation from a state it has pledged to destroy?

Hamas must face the fact that no government in Gaza can deliver for the population there without co-operation from Israel.

This co-operation is open to Hamas if it recognises Israel, renounces violence and accepts previous peace agreements. If Hamas was ready to do this, the recent economic success in the West Bank would be bettered in the Gaza Strip, where there are no settlements, and no internal restrictions on movement.

Not only has Hamas failed to do this, it has failed to agree with the Palestinian Authority a date for new elections.

There is an understandable temptation at this stage simply to lean on Israel to relax its restrictions. However, the ramifications are wide. A victory for Hamas is a setback for Abbas, an already fragile leader. Now Abbas can credibly argue that his path of non-violence is delivering for the Palestinians in the West Bank where the Hamas path of intransigence has failed.

What will he say if the international community appears to be caving in to Hamas?

Lorna Fitzsimons is chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.