JERUSALEM -- Seizing key roads and military compounds, and forcing the surrender of hundreds of their Fatah rivals, Hamas gunmen armed with rifles, mortars and grenades made substantial progress yesterday toward their apparent goal of conquering the entire Gaza Strip.
Such rapid military progress by the highly organized and disciplined Islamic militant group raises the question of what a definitive Hamas victory in Gaza would mean for the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Middle East as a whole.
Speaking by telephone from his sixth-floor apartment in Gaza City, where gunfire rattled nearby, Nagi Shourrab, a political scientist at Al Azhar University, offered a bleak assessment.
"I think we will return to square zero," he said.
A Hamas conquest of Gaza would leave the dream of a unified Palestinian state in tatters, Shourrab said.
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could cease because Israel would be able to argue that the Palestinians no longer have a clear seat of power.
Shourrab said President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement seeks peace with Israel, would remain in control of the West Bank while Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas faction advocates Israel's destruction, would oversee Gaza.
Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz wrote yesterday: "Hamas's takeover of Gaza ... is destined to split the territories into two entities that are politically and culturally separate: Hamastan (the Gaza Strip) and Fatahstan (the West Bank)."
Although Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movements during the past seven years of violence have effectively cut off Gaza from the West Bank, one objective of the Middle East peace process has been to preserve the geographic integrity of the territories to create a viable state.
Over the years, there have been proposals by the international community to link Gaza and the West Bank with a sunken highway or a railway to allow economic and family ties.
A formal political separation between the two territories would create two incompatible, disconnected government systems for the Palestinian people.
"How would the international society and Arab countries deal with the Palestinian Authority? Through the authority in Gaza or the West Bank? The government here or the government in the West Bank?" Shourrab asked.
Under Hamas control, Gaza might become a mini-Islamic state, pulled closer to Hamas' strong supporters, Iran and Syria, some analysts say.
"The Hamas platform was very clear. They are part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their radical Islamic platform is not just against Israel, but also against the West," said Gerald Steinberg, an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "They certainly won't be satisfied with Gaza. The world will have to prevent them from going beyond Gaza."
Steinberg said he expects an international force or Israeli forces to start controlling Gaza's border with Egypt to prevent Hamas from smuggling in longer-range missiles and other weapons that might threaten Israel.
Ali Jirbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, suspects that full Hamas control of Gaza would mean more restrictions on its people.
"They would impose some of the features of an Islamic state, like maybe the hijab," he said, referring to the head and body coverings required for some Muslim women.
Jirbawi said Hamas is ultimately a pragmatic organization with simple goals.
"They want recognition, basically. What they are doing by controlling Gaza is thinking that if they control Gaza, they will be a force to be reckoned with. And Israel has to recognize that, and the outside world has to recognize that," he said.
Much of the world has been unwilling to deal with Hamas unless it meets Western demands that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous peace deals. But Gaza's growing economic and social problems might force the world to take notice, Jirbawi said.
"At the end of the day, what are you going to do with Gaza? It's not going to vanish," Jirbawi said. "It's a problem for everyone. At one point, Gaza is going to be dealt with. Who are they going to deal with, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], who is sitting in Ramallah, or those people who are in control in Gaza?"
Even before the current round of violence, Gaza and the West Bank had vastly different outlooks. The West Bank is more moderate, more liberal and wealthier than the more religious Gaza.
Gaza has served as a strong base for the Hamas movement, whose schools and charities helped it win loyal support.
After Israel's withdrawal from its Gaza settlements in 2005, many Palestinians hoped Gaza would become a model of Palestinian independence and prosperity. Instead, it rapidly deteriorated amid factional fighting and deepening poverty after an international economic boycott of the Hamas-led government.
Hamas' showdown with Fatah is rooted not only in their deep ideological differences, but also in the power vacuum created by the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004.
"The dynamics of Palestinian politics are very much like the dynamics of Iraqi politics. After the death of Arafat, there was no strongman, there was nobody to hold it together, and this is what we're seeing," Steinberg said.
Those political divisions, Steinberg said, could take the form of two starkly different Palestinian territories, with Gaza descending further into chaos and the West Bank with a chance for calm and perhaps prosperity someday.
"It may take 10 or 20 years and Hamas will run its course. But for the foreseeable future, the separation will have to be maintained unless Hamas goes through a radical transformation once it's in charge, which is unlikely given their radical ideology," Steinberg said.
For the people of Gaza, caught between the fighting factions, such separation would be a disaster, Shourrab said.
"I believe many people, particularly the educated and the business people, will think seriously of leaving Gaza and looking for other places to go," he said.
"All the people are living in fear. They are frustrated. They are dispirited. There is nobody here who is secure about his life and his family."