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Gaza After Hamas: Poor, Religious, Hopeless

Few Gazans can find reasons to celebrate a year of Hamas rule.

by
Rinat Malkes

Bio

June 29, 2008 - 12:00 am

A year after the so-called “green revolution”, when Hamas took control of Gaza after a bloody military coup, all it takes is a short walk around Al Jundi al-Majhoul square, the heart of downtown Gaza City to see the changes.

It is quite rare to see a woman who is not covered in the hijab, the traditional Arab veil. Many of the ones who already used to put on the garment, have exchanged it for the chador, the black Iranian-style veil. The number of bearded men has never been so high and a comparison to the most conservative neighborhoods of Teheran is almost unavoidable.

The Hamas regime itself downplayed their one-year anniversary, which took place this month, for fear of sparking unrest. In the media, the event was overshadowed by the negotiation of a ceasefire with Israel.

For ordinary Gazans, the occasion was less about celebration and more about evaluation of the past year, economically, politically and socially.

The conclusion: over the past year Gaza has become more conservative, more religious and more hopeless.

Prof. Mkhaimar Abu Saad, a political science analyst from Al Ahzar University, the past year was undoubtably the worst in Palestinian history. The break in relations between the Islamic Hamas and the secular Fatah, headed by Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas has not only divided the Palestinians themselves, but made international hopes for a final solution to the Arab-Israel problem an even more distant prospect. Unemployment rates in Gaza reached 75% of Gaza’s population and the average annual income, which had been $1500 per capita, dropped to a mere $600 as a result of Hamas rule.

“You can see people having a more religious and more reclusive way of life,” says Abu Saad. “Many families became religious over the past year out of despair or simply as a way of trying to survive. Hamas is today the only source of employment in Gaza and many people adhered to religion hoping to find a job in the government, or in the security forces or in the civil service.”

Certainly, a year of Hamas government has changed Gazan life. But has governing transformed Hamas – and its level of political strength?

Its public support appears to remain high, although many Palestinians are now showing a growing affinity for the idea of new national union administration that would not only unite Hamas and Fatah, but all Palestinian factions.

Attacking Hamas in public if, for obvious reasons, not a popular tactic, but even some Hamas members have dared to state that that launching missiles into Israel has been the wrong strategy and more openness to dialogue with Israel and Fatah are the only way to rescue Gaza from its desperate isolation. Some militants even admit that its increasingly close ties to Teheran are a result of necessity, not affinity.

Gazan’s report card on their leaders is not all bad. When they came to power, many did not believed the Islamists could not control 1.5 million poor people in one of the most crowded places on Earth.

But law and order – Hamas style – is in place.

There is no cursing or shouting in public, the civil service has been reformed, hospitals have never been so clean and law is being imposed, albeit as a near-dictatorship.

Prof. Assad Abu Sharekh, from Gaza University says that Hamas cannot be denied credit for bringing peace back to the cities of the Gaza. He is certain that Gaza is a much safer place today than it was last year.

“A year ago, there were gangs shooting, killing, attacking and robbing during daylight without any fear of punishment. It sounds strange, but Gaza today is a safe place, you are not afraid of walking on the streets anymore. There’s law and order and the corruption has completely gone.”

As solid a hold they may appear to have taken domestically, Hamas’s foreign relations are unquestionably a disaster. While more and more Palestinians dream about national union and overcoming differences among its factions and parties, Prof. Abu Sharekh believes that the Hamas future depends on the end of the Gaza siege – clearly the reason Hamas moved to a ceasefire and is now talking about a deal involving captured IDF solider Gilad Shalit.

Successfully opening the borders would undoubtedly improve Hamas’ image and boost its popularity tremendously – not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank as well – which is why they have made no secret of their desire to do so.

Even such a step however, he is skeptical regarding the odds of a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah. For him, the recent Fatah calls to a national dialogue are simply a way for Mahmoud Abbas to pressure Israel. Abu Sharekh strongly believes that only direct intervention of the Arab League could help stabilize the security situation in Gaza long-term and help the Palestinians move towards unity.

“The Egyptians are working hard, but no one wants to be identified with a process that won’t succeed and therefore even the Arab League is hard-pressed to help us. They were effective in mediating the last crisis in Lebanon. Here, it is different though. There are still many points in which Hamas and Fatah are utterly unable to compromise. Paradoxically, everyone feels the need for unity, but no one can achieve the compromise necessary to reach it. Perhaps Hamas grew stronger as a resistance movement over the past year, but not necessarily as a political party. Their only real victory is bringing back peace to the streets.”

Rinat Malkes is a Tel Aviv-based journalist.
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