The magic words "We recognize you" could end all this suffering. So why did their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, vow last week never to utter them? Is Hamas so filled with hatred and loathing for Israel as a Jewish state that it cannot make such a simple statement of good intent?
It is easy to forget that, though conditions have dramatically deteriorated of late, the Palestinians' problems did not start with the election of Hamas. Israel's occupation is four decades old, and no Palestinian leader has ever been able to extract from Israel a promise of real statehood in all of the occupied territories: not the mukhtars, the largely compliant local leaders, who for decades were the only representatives allowed to speak on behalf of the Palestinians after the national leadership was expelled; not the Palestinian Authority under the secular leadership of Yasser Arafat, who returned to the occupied territories in the mid-1990s after the PLO had recognized Israel; not the leadership of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the "moderate" who first called for an end to the armed intifada; and now not the leaders of Hamas, even though they have repeatedly called for a long-term truce (hudna) as the first step in building confidence.
Similarly, few Palestinians doubt that Israel will continue to entrench the occupation – just as it did during the supposed peacemaking years of Oslo, when the number of Jewish settlers doubled in the occupied territories – even if Hamas is ousted and a government of national unity, of technocrats or even of Fatah takes its place.
There is far more at stake for Israel in winning this little concession from Hamas than most observers appreciate. A statement saying that Hamas recognized Israel would do much more than meet Israel's precondition for talks; it would mean that Hamas had walked into the same trap that was set earlier for Arafat and Fatah. That trap is designed to ensure that any peaceful solution to the conflict is impossible.