In Gaza, Hamas rule has not turned out as many expected (WASHINGTON POST) By Karin Brulliard GAZA CITY 04/19/12)
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GAZA CITY — The housing stipends, promised by Hamas social workers
after much of Umm Mohammed’s neighborhood was demolished in an
Israeli military assault three years ago, never came. The water
barrels pledged by municipal authorities seemed to go only to Hamas
cadres. Electricity is a rarity.
And as Israeli airstrikes targeting Palestinian militants pounded the
Gaza Strip last month, the housewife said, the enclave’s Hamas rulers
watched from “their chairs” — lingo here for cushy seats of power.
“They say they are the resistance against the enemy,” said Umm
Mohammed, 26, bouncing a baby on her knee. “Where is the resistance?”
The militant Islamist movement surged to a surprise victory in
Palestinian elections in 2006 with promises of clean governance and a
reputation for terrorist tactics against Israel, which had withdrawn
from Gaza the year before. But after five years of Hamas
administration, many in this besieged strip say it has lived up to
neither. Hamas is fast losing popularity, and recent surveys indicate
that it would not win if elections were held in Gaza today.
As enthusiasm for Islamist parties grows in the Arab world and
prompts questions about what shape political Islam will take, some
say Hamas’s path from violent opposition movement to de facto
government could be instructive: The Gaza-based rulers, many analysts
say, have become more pragmatic and more self-
interested — a bit more like common politicians. Whether that means
Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has altered its
extremist ideology is far from clear.
Israel and the United States, which deem Hamas a terrorist
organization, are unconvinced. Israeli military officials say the
movement remains dedicated to Israel’s ruin, as stated in its
charter, and is hoarding arms for future offensives. Although some
Hamas leaders voice admiration for Turkey’s moderate and democratic
Islamism to foreign audiences, others unfurl militant, anti-Israel
rhetoric to chanting supporters.
Corruption and patronage
Ideology aside, the Hamas that won control of this Mediterranean
strip, isolated by an economic siege and hobbled by 30 percent
unemployment, no longer looks the same to many Gazans. It secured
once-lawless streets, as promised. But hopes of Islam-guided fairness
and an end to the graft that had tainted the tenure of the secular
Fatah party have turned to widespread griping about Hamas corruption
Hamas has hired more than 40,000 civil servants, and analysts say the
top tiers are filled by loyalists. Members of the Hamas elite are
widely thought to have enriched themselves through investment in the
dusty labyrinth of smuggling tunnels beneath the border with Egypt
and taxes on the imported goods. That money has been channeled into
flashy cars and Hamas-owned businesses that only stalwarts get a
stake in, critics say.
Street-level umbrage has risen in recent months alongside tax
increases and a crippling power crisis that has caused 18-hour
blackouts and gas station lines that snake around corners. It began
after Egypt stopped providing subsidized fuel for vehicles and Gaza’s
sole power plant through the tunnels. Analysts — and ordinary Gazans —
say the crisis has been prolonged by Hamas’s refusal to import
pricier fuel through an Israeli-controlled crossing.
Yet some diesel is making its way through Hamas-connected tunnels to
Gaza’s black market, where it sells for as much as $30 a gallon.
“Can you smell that? Diesel,” one tunnel manager said on a recent
morning as he crouched in the passage, a half-mile-long cylinder
little wider than a water slide. Fifty gallons had just come through,
a process the manager said was “eased” because one of the tunnel’s
owners has a brother in government.
“Many aspects of the siege are imposed by Hamas,” said the manager,
who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of losing
‘A police state’
If Hamas has not delivered clean governance, neither has it fully
Islamized society, as some feared. Alcohol and belly dancing have
been banned. But efforts to require schoolgirls to wear veils,
prohibit women from smoking water pipes or prevent “un-Islamic”
behavior on the strip’s breezy beaches largely failed amid criticism
from the public, which is generally conservative but “didn’t like
Hamas or the government telling them how to behave,” said Gaza-based
political scientist Mkhaimar Abusada.
Authoritarianism has come more in the form of quashed dissent and
arrests of perceived political opponents, actions that even Hamas
supporters concede have cost the group support.
“We became like a police state,” said Ahmed Yousef, a former adviser
to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “They became scared of any
rally or demonstration.”
Hamas, eager to preserve its rule, has also become wary of provoking
a new Israeli offensive in Gaza, costing it credibility in some
quarters. Although Gaza’s cement-block buildings are papered with
posters of gun-toting fighters, and Hamas allows Islamic Jihad and
other militant factions to fire rockets into Israel, Hamas itself has
mostly adhered to an unofficial cease-fire since the 2008-2009
“The people did not accept that Islamic Jihad was left alone on the
battlefield,” an Islamic Jihad spokesman who goes by the nom de
guerre Abu Ahmed said of Hamas’s decision to abstain as Israel
battled Palestinian militants last month.
Islamic Jihad’s performance — it lobbed hundreds of rockets toward
civilian targets in Israel and lost 14 fighters — increased the
group’s appeal, Ahmed boasted, noting that Hamas now has “different
calculations and bigger responsibility. . . . It has a lot to lose.”
Indeed, as political Islam rises in the region, Hamas has essentially
abandoned longtime patron Syria, and a fairly public divide has
emerged between Hamas hard-liners and those seeking a more pragmatic
approach that might help relieve Gaza’s isolation.
“A lot of these groups are now having to do this difficult dance and
straddle these two constituencies,” Shadi Hamid, research director at
the Brookings Doha Center, said of Hamas and other Islamist
organizations in the region. “That leads to considerable policy
Where that is heading is unclear, and Hamas leaders are noncommittal.
Taher al-Nunu, a spokesman for the movement, said Hamas leaders
restrained fighters last month because they thought Israel was trying
to provoke them to learn about their weapons arsenal, not because
they have abandoned armed tactics.
“We are not working by remote control like Israel wants,” he said.
But Nunu said Western powers have ignored symbolic moves by Hamas,
such as Haniyeh’s decision to make his first official trip abroad, in
January, to Turkey — a country whose electoral democracy and moderate
Islamism are serving as a “model” to a growing number of Hamas
leaders, Yousef said.
One month after that trip, though, Haniyeh visited Iran, another
longtime Hamas benefactor.
Despite public discontent, Hamas officials seem unruffled. The
movement’s grip inside Gaza remains near-total, in part because a
unity deal with Fatah, which could lead to elections, is on ice.
That leaves Abu Khaled, an unemployed former shopkeeper, to seethe in
his 11th-floor apartment in Gaza City. Khaled, 55, said he voted for
Hamas because it promised change and justice, which he figured meant
there would be jobs.
But only those who “pray in a Hamas mosque” get work, he said, adding
that the movement’s leaders look as though they have gotten
comfortable with their mini-state and have forgotten about fighting
for Palestinian independence.
“We used to take taxis, now we walk. We were eating, now we are not.
We must admit, things changed — but for the worse,” Khaled said
wryly, speaking through coils of cigarette smoke. “Hamas is
controlling us. They are responsible for us.” (© 2010 The Washington
Post Company 04/19/12)
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