GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Following their resounding election victory, the Islamic militants of Hamas met the question of whether they will change their stripes with a loud "no": no recognition of Israel, no negotiations, no renunciation of terror.
But the world holds out hope that international pressure can make them more moderate. At stake is the future of Mideast peacemaking, billions of dollars in aid and the Palestinians' relationship with Israel, the United States and Europe.
Hamas' victory — winning 74 of 132 parliament seats in Wednesday's election — has created a dizzying power shift in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, overturning certitudes and highlighting the failure by Palestinian leaders, Israel and the international community to ease growing desperation in the Palestinian territories.
Weekend violence between Hamas and Palestinian policemen mostly allied with long-dominant Fatah, and angry demonstrations by disgruntled gunmen fearing the loss of jobs and income after the Hamas win, have raised the specter of widespread civil strife.
After a brutal five-year campaign by Israel to destroy Hamas and assassinate its top leaders, the organization emerged stronger than ever and is poised to take over the Palestinian Authority.
The U.S. has pushed for democracy in the Middle East, hoping to promote moderation and head off more 9/11-style attacks, but, as in recent votes in Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, a clean and fair election has empowered Islamists in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel and the international community repeatedly have demanded that the Palestinian government disarm militias, but now that the main militia appears to have become the government, no one knows what will happen to its weapons.
The win by Hamas — which is responsible for dozens of suicide bombings on Israelis and has long called for the destruction of the Jewish state — caught everyone, including the organization itself, off guard.
Both Hamas and the international community face agonizing dilemmas. Hamas leaders say they won't renounce their violent ideology, but the consequences of failing to do so are likely to be catastrophic: loss of life-sustaining aid, international isolation and a profound setback to their statehood aspirations.
The United States and many European countries say they'll have nothing to do with a Hamas government, but a sharp cutoff in aid and an overly zealous stance could steer the Palestinians further away from moderation at an extremely delicate moment.
An interview with an up-and-coming young Hamas leader in a dusty Gaza Strip field revealed how the organization's slant could shift.
Mushir al-Masri said renouncing the "armed struggle" and negotiating with Israel are "not on Hamas' agenda" because a decade of talking won the Palestinians nothing.
"We cannot waste 10 more years when the last 10 years failed to realize even the minimum amount of Palestinian hopes," he said.
But when an aide tried to put a green Hamas sash over al-Masri's shoulder before a TV interview, the 29-year-old newly elected lawmaker shooed him away. "You should bring me the Palestinian flag," he said, reflecting his movement's stated desire to represent all Palestinians.
By all accounts, Palestinians didn't choose Hamas because they reject peace talks with Israel but rather because they were fed up with graft in the ruling Fatah Party. Hamas candidates ran on a platform of clean government, largely de-emphasizing their militant credentials.
Samih al-Hattab, a 32-year-old policeman in Gaza City, said he voted for Hamas because "everyone wants change," but said he expected the group to soften its stances once in power.
"A politician has to be seasoned and to adapt to the situation he's under," he said, standing outside a mosque where a cleric had just finished a sermon urging Hamas not to follow the corrupt ways of Fatah.
Hamas leaders are aware of their dilemma. Since the election, they have struggled to persuade Fatah to join them in a coalition — hoping to avoid having to deal with Israel and the West. But Fatah has so far rejected the offer.
Hamas victory celebrations have been decidedly muted, another indication the group seeks to handle the situation delicately.
Despite that, tensions are boiling on the streets. Clashes in Gaza between Hamas gunmen and Palestinian police on Friday and Saturday wounded four officers and one Hamas militant.
Also Saturday, thousands of angry Fatah activists, led by masked gunmen firing in the air, marched through several West Bank cities demanding the resignation of party leaders following their defeat.
The growing unrest, combined with the complexities of running a government and world pressure for it to change its ways, pose daunting challenges to Hamas, which has little experience in governance.
If Hamas forms the next government, as is likely, and fails to renounce its call for the destruction of Israel, the U.S. and most European countries are almost certain to cut off the financial aid that keeps the already bankrupt Palestinian Authority running.
Israel, which has urged the international community not to deal with a Hamas government, has substantial leverage in the situation but for now appears intent on holding off on severe measures such as closing border crossings with Gaza or cutting off the monthly flow of tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinians have a mixed system of government, part presidential and part parliamentary. That means Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, should be able to remain in office.
Still unknown, however, is whether Hamas will seize its right to form the new government, taking over the premiership and a new Palestinian Cabinet, and what sort of powers that would give them. The previous Fatah-dominated legislature for the most part fell in line with Abbas.