The three young Fatah guerrillas in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, wearing masks and holding AK-47s, had just received advance payment to start a second career -- as Palestinian policemen fighting terror, according to an Arab journalist present. They were paid by aides of Mohammed Dahlan, the new U.S.-backed Palestinian security minister, who has received millions of dollars from U.S. and European Union officials to raise such a force -- a vital part of the "road map" peace process.
Standing in the living room of one of their safe houses, the men were asked if they would sign on as policemen.
"Sure," said their spokesman, "if they pay us a salary."
But were they prepared to take on Hamas?
"No," he replied. "We won't point our guns at our own people."
His comrades shook their heads with him. All Palestinians, including Hamas suicide bombers, he explained, are "fighting in the same trench."
Nobody in the West Bank and Gaza is ready to take on Hamas. Those who have the will, such as Dahlan and his boss, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, don't have the muscle.
Those who do have the firepower aren't interested, because going up against Hamas would turn them into traitors -- if not in their own eyes, then in the eyes of their people, including many in their families.
This dilemma -- who will stop Hamas? -- is the gaping hole in the "road map" to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It is the reason Israelis are getting blown up in Jerusalem, why Palestinians are getting blown away in Gaza, why the road map seemingly ended one week after its inauguration on a bright afternoon by the sea in Aqaba.
Since turning to terror in the late 1980s, Hamas -- short for Islamic Resistance Movement -- has been unmistakably clear in word and deed about its intention to fight Israel to the death. Recent polls showed it pulling almost even with Fatah -- the traditional "mainstream" party of Yasser Arafat, Abbas and Dahlan -- in popularity among Palestinians.
But after a week of road map, Hamas was clearly king. The turning point came with Israel's helicopter hit in Gaza on Abdel Aziz Rantisi, one of Hamas' most visible leaders. Rantisi, 56, survived with shrapnel wounds. Now crowds outside his hospital chant for jihad and cheer him as "the living martyr."
The tactics of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon haven't exactly helped Abbas and Dahlan's cause. In the back-and-forth killings since Aqaba, it was Israel that drew first blood, killing two wanted terrorists in the West Bank the night after the signing ceremony.
Later, alternating with Hamas' deadly shootings and its suicide bombing of a Jerusalem bus, Israeli army helicopters killed eight Gazan Hamas terrorists in their cars -- and 14 innocent bystanders. The charred bodies, even the baby bottle of a Palestinian toddler that was killed, were held aloft amid the raging crowds.
Said Anat Kurz, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies: "Hamas is fighting Fatah for leadership of the Palestinian struggle, and Israel is playing into their hands."