The handwriting was on the wall; everybody knew that there would be a showdown between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip; everybody knew that Hamas was the overriding force in that territory. In the Middle East where the "Mu'ahmara," the conspiracy, has been the leitmotif behind every catastrophe, the man in the street knew that the Americans and Israelis had been conspiring with Fatah, that Hamas had been conspiring with the Syrians and Iranians, and that the Saudis were toiling to get things on track and to move the entire region in the direction of moderation. But now, a week after the events that culminated in the takeover of the Strip by Hamas, people are just now overcoming their surprise.

First Hamas. They did not expect to win the elections a year and a half ago, they did not expect that Fatah would agree to go hand in hand with them into a national unity government. They did not expect the United States to confront them and invest so heavily in a Fatah anti-Hamas force. And they did not expect Fatah's American-trained and logistically supported force to fold like a pack of cards with its commanders fleeing the scene and leaving their men to face a cruel and savage fate. They rejoiced in this major American setback, but they certainly did not expect it to assume such proportions. They did not expect Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to turn his back on them and virtually excommunicate them from Palestinian society. After their triumph last week they tried to assert their authority, and none other than Hamas leader Khaled Mashal ordered the release of kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston by nightfall on June 19. The captors defied him and simply ignored him. Hamas did not expect that either. This could become the harbinger of a bitter awakening.

And Fatah. They did not expect all of that and more. They did not foresee a real "Fitna"--a civil war in Gaza. They did not think they would have to decide whether to go it alone in the West Bank, where they have a preponderance of power vis-a-vis Hamas but are still unable to assert themselves and prevent terrorist plots on their own. Abbas did not expect to be propelled into a position where he would be perceived as one whose prime minister was chosen in Washington. Salaam Fayad did not expect that he, a decent and respected economist, would be anointed prime minister, finance minister, and foreign minister heading a technocratic cabinet charged with a gigantic task of confronting a separated Gaza , receiving massive Israeli and international aid, and burdened with the mission of leading another fighting force designed to uproot terrorism in the Palestinian territories. Can the Abbas-Fayad team do what has never been done before?

Neither did the U.S. government nor the Israeli government expect this rapid chain of events. Next week yet another regional summit attended by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority will go through the now traditionally Washington-scripted ritual. Abbas will be lauded for his courage and determination to tough it out, Israel will release hundreds of millions of frozen Palestinian assets, and the United States and Europe will come forward with attractive economic and other schemes to improve the quality of life of the Palestinians.

After the festivities, however, will come the morning after; there will be tough decisions to make. Will the American supported government in Ramallah abandon the million and a half Gazans to their fate as they distribute aid in the West Bank? Will the new Government start confronting terrorism on the West Bank? Can it do the job? Will it see this through? Will Hamas, isolated and abandoned, simply sit it out and accept this new status quo peacefully? Should we all not only prepare but also promote a final, crucial, military confrontation with Hamas? Is the policy of dividing not only the current governance of the Palestinians but also their ultimate destiny a viable policy? Before discussing the outlines of a permanent solution to the age-long dispute there are so many urgent issues at hand that demand immediate attention.

Hamas is seeking a cease-fire with Israel in both in Gaza and in the West Bank and this Israel cannot and should not grant, because it would allow the inferior Hamas groups there to reorganize after suffering a severe beating. So what will we "do" with Gaza? What will Abbas "do" with Gaza? How long can the present fragile stand-off last?

I hope that before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left Washington this week, he agreed with President Bush that a Plan B team be appointed to design an alternative to the newly furbished policy on the Palestinian issue, lest it go the way of its failed predecessors.

By Efraim Halevy