Leading article: Hopes - and fears - for the Palestinian election

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It is tempting to draw parallels with the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Both Hamas and the old IRA were formed as hard-line armed resistance movements, but both have subsequently been persuaded of the wisdom of engaging in democratic politics. There are other similarities too. The IRA and Hamas have both been perceived at various times as "protectors" of their respective communities, and have taken an interest in grass-roots social welfare issues.

Some claim that encouraging Hamas into democratic engagement will lead to the organisation softening its line on Israel. That is certainly the hope of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, who gave permission for Hamas to take part in these elections. There are signs that this might be working. In an effort to broaden its appeal, Hamas has ensured that its manifesto makes no mention of the destruction of Israel. There are also signs that, like the IRA, it is willing to suspend violence for political ends. The recent suicide bombings in Israel have been mainly the work of other militant groups. Hamas itself has halted military operations until the elections are over.

There are potential political benefits from a Hamas breakthrough. The popularity of the group's fundamentalist religious vision is questionable. Some have interpreted its rising popularity as a rejection of the corruption and cronyism of the ruling Fatah party, rather than an endorsement of Hamas ideology. If this is true, incorporating Hamas into a ruling coalition could have the paradoxical affect of re-legitimising the leadership of Mr Abbas.

But there must be caution. The parallels with Northern Ireland only go so far. Hamas is still committed to the destruction of the state of Israel in its charter, even if it has left it off its manifesto. And it is still a terrorist organisation. There is no Sinn Fein/IRA distinction here. If Hamas were to gain a place in a new Palestinian government, Israel would find itself asked to deal with representatives of an organisation that has killed hundreds of its civilians in suicide bombings. There are no guarantees that Israel would recognise a government composed partly of Hamas delegates. The rest of the world would also be wary of recognising such an administration, which would open the EU and the US - major donors to the Palestinian Authority - to accusations that they are effectively sponsoring a terrorist organisation.

There is a further danger posed by a Hamas breakthrough. It could enable the Israeli government to claim that it has no serious partner on the Palestinian side, just as it did with Yasser Arafat. With an intransigent Hamas on the other side of the negotiating table, Israelis would be more likely to elect a hard-line government in their turn. This could prove gravely damaging to the peace process.

We must hope that this week's election will prove to be the beginning of a new chapter in the reconciliation of Palestinian and Israeli interests - but the international community would also be well advised to make preparations for the worst.

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