The Islamists of Hamas are being squeezed towards pragmatism
from the print edition
OVERCOMING five years of punishing siege, bombardment and war should be a cause for celebration. But Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules the coastal enclave of Gaza, was not cheering the anniversary of its military takeover on June 14th. Its initial pride at imposing internal security, constructing an effective administration and rebuilding Gaza by burrowing tunnels into Egypt is turning to embarrassment. Hamas officials have grown fat on the proceeds. The movement seems increasingly confused and evasive about its political direction.
In recent months Hamas has dithered and bickered about whether it should seek reconciliation with Fatah, the secular-minded party that runs the bigger bit of the would-be Palestinian state on the West Bank, or preserve its near-monopoly on power in the isolated Gaza Strip. The people of Gaza, meanwhile, have come to see Hamas as putting factional interests ahead of national ones. “Curse you men of moustaches and beards,” wrote Hassan Salama, a Hamas militant, from his Israeli cell in a widely circulated letter, lambasting the leaders of both Fatah and Hamas for splitting Palestine into two self-serving autocracies.
When Hamas won Palestine’s most recent general election, in 2006, it promised to replace Fatah’s venal patronage system and unexplained wealth with democracy and equality. To some the movement now looks just as compromised as Fatah once did. Despite several attempts to overthrow it, both by Israel and Fatah, Hamas has tightened its grip on Gaza. Its internal security forces have more or less quashed feuding clans, silenced guns, and opened up the beaches for families. It enforces a tax regime that is even more stringent than Fatah’s on the West Bank.
Using tunnels to transport building materials, Hamas has begun to regenerate Gaza, transforming security bases into schools, turning training grounds into public parks, and levelling the Saraya, the Gaza City fortress from which the enclave’s past rulers had governed, instead erecting a commercial complex. A host of new tourist resorts line the beach front. A corniche is being built which, say hopeful officials, will rival Tel Aviv’s. Anxious to stop Israel from ruining the show, Hamas guards prevent Palestinian militants and demonstrators from coming close to the border with Israel to avoid confrontation with—and retaliation by—the watchful opponents.
But having built its local empire, Hamas is uncertain where to go next. Early whoops of joy at the prospect of a new Islamist government in Egypt opening Gaza’s border have subsided. On the contrary, the Egyptians are restricting supplies of petrol and energy to Gaza, causing repeated blackouts. And despite officially easing the entry procedures into Gaza, Israel still curtails the departure of all but a trickle of goods and people.
The Islamists have failed to find a way to revive Gaza as a productive economy. The enclave still feels politically and physically hemmed in. “We used to blame outside foes for the closure, but after five years we feel the government is also to blame,” says Wesam Afifa, the editor of Al-Resalah, a Hamas newspaper.
In the meantime, Hamas leaders seem increasingly content to enjoy the fruits of splendid isolation. The parliamentary car park, full of rickety bangers when Hamas first took office, now gleams with flash new models hauled through the tunnels under the Egyptian border. Two Hummer H3s and a golden Porsche were recently spotted cruising the streets. Ministers and members of parliament seem unbothered by the lack of accountability as well as reports of money-laundering. “We’re hunted and targeted,” explains a self-pitying MP on Hamas’s parliamentary ethics committee, who recently spent $28,000 on a new car with the help of a $12,000 loan from the movement.
Pure-minded Islamists accuse Hamas of forsaking its official name—the Islamic Resistance Movement—for the pursuit of power. Hamas has relaxed the summer religiosity campaigns that marked its first years in power and has suspended its plans to apply sharia law. Gazans mockingly call its female adherents “the 2Js”: they wear an ascetic jilbab, or nun-like cloak, for public view, but they sport skin-tight jeans underneath.
To keep Israel off its back and uphold a ceasefire, Hamas has suspended its armed struggle, in deed if not in word. The movement’s most recent battle was in January 2009, when Israeli forces clobbered it. As Hamas evolves from a guerrilla force into a semi-regular army, so its military posture has shifted from offence to defence. The flight of its external leadership from volatile Syria to stable but less welcoming Qatar and Egypt highlights a shift from armed “resistance” to pragmatic politics.
Hamas’s 300 border guards generally stop gunmen from other Palestinian militias firing missiles (mostly home-made) at Israel. “Hamas no longer participates with the mujahideen,” says Abdullah Shami, a veteran of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a more militant rival faction, which increasingly presents itself as the genuine article; Iran, the PIJ’s keenest backer, supports it as an insurance policy in case Hamas abandons the battle altogether.
But Hamas has not yet given up. Its armed wing imports weapons, including 16-barrel rocket launchers, from Libya through the tunnels. Around 5,000 Hamas men recently graduated from a military-training course. Whereas a generation ago Hamas youths threw stones at Israelis, Hamas missiles might now be able to hit Tel Aviv, 40km (25 miles) to the north.
What price unity?
Might a power-sharing deal with Fatah end the malaise? A growing number of Hamas officials seem to think so. A year ago their leader in exile, Khaled Meshal, tentatively agreed with Mahmoud Abbas, the veteran Fatah leader who runs the West Bank as president of the Palestinian Authority, to reconcile the two factions. Hamas’s prime minister let a Palestinian electoral commission begin to update Gaza’s electoral roll after a five-year hiatus and eased curbs on Fatah demonstrations in Gaza (though Fatah newspapers are still banned there).
Hamas’s agriculture minister says that, if need be, he is prepared to give up his job in preparation for a unified government. “No one can guarantee that time is on our side,” says a sober senior Hamas official. “We have to seize the moment, end division and put the national interest first.”
Under the latest reconciliation proposal, Mr Abbas would be prime minister of both territories. The deal nonetheless has many attractions for Hamas too. Mr Abbas would underwrite the payroll and leave Hamas security forces and bureaucrats in charge for at least another six months. The increasingly unpopular movement might also be spared a return to the ballot box. If elections fail to take place within six months, so the deal says ominously, the two factions would opt for a unity government, ensuring that Hamas remains in power in Gaza.
View original The Economist publication at: http://www.economist.com/node/21556961