Analysis: One year after 'coup,' Hamas still favored

With Hamas blaming poor living conditions on US and Israel, many Gazan residents thankful for what little the group can give them.

Hamas gunmen 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hamas gunmen 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Although Hamas's violent seizure of the entire Gaza Strip in June 2007 has had catastrophic repercussions for the 1.5 million Palestinians living there, there is no reason to believe that the Islamist movement's rule is on its way to vanishing. On the contrary; Hamas appears to be as strong and popular as ever with residents of the Gaza Strip. Various public opinion polls published in recent weeks have even shown that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is more popular than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Of course there have also been polls that showed the exact opposite. But notwithstanding the contradictory surveys, the fact that Hamas is still in power one year after the "coup" speaks for itself. True, the living conditions in the Gaza Strip are very bad under Hamas. But, as a Palestinian journalist there said Sunday, "We have become used to this situation. The conditions here have always been bad, and so what if under Hamas it's a bit worse?" Indeed, Hamas has failed in improving the living conditions of the Palestinians. But as far as many people in the Gaza Strip think, it's all Israel's fault and not Hamas's. "The international sanctions have, ironically, strengthened Hamas," said a Palestinian political analyst in Gaza City. "The siege also gave Hamas a good excuse not to do anything and to continue blaming the Israelis and Americans for the disastrous situation in the Gaza Strip." The US-led campaign over the past 12 months to undermine the Hamas government has clearly backfired, earning the Islamist movement additional sympathy among the Palestinians. That's because when a Palestinian refugee in Gaza's Jabalya camp sees and hears US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice openly campaigning against his "democratically elected" government, he will rally behind the government. Hamas supporters in the Gaza Strip pointed out that despite its failure in almost all fields, the movement has successfully ended the state of anarchy and lawlessness that prevailed under the Fatah-dominated PA security forces. Hamas's merciless measures against drug traffickers and other criminals have resulted in a 95 percent drop in the crime rate, according to figures released by Hamas-affiliated organizations. "We feel safer walking on the street under Hamas," said Anwar Najjar, a university student from Khan Yunis. "No more gangsters, no more kidnappings, no more thefts." Hamas officials boasted that not a single foreigner has been kidnapped since the movement took full control of the area. One of them said investigations conducted by Hamas have shown that former Fatah operatives and security personnel were behind the abductions of at least 25 foreigners in the past four years. "We've reached a situation where drivers are afraid to drive through a red light," remarked another Palestinian journalist working for a foreign news agency in Gaza City. "Most people here are happy that the Fatah security forces are gone because they were very corrupt and many of their commanders were acting like mafia leaders. They are also happy that all the Fatah gangsters who used to roam the streets and intimidate the people have disappeared. Today no one dares to carry a gun in public." But all this has been achieved at a very heavy price. First, more than 450 Palestinians have been killed and 1,800 wounded in the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas. Second, poverty and unemployment in the Gaza Strip are estimated at 70%. Most of the 3,900 factories have closed in the past year. In addition, 12 hotels and 25 tourist restaurants have been forced to fire about 500 workers. Nearly half of the 3,000 fishermen in Gaza have been forced to stop working because of the lack of fuel and restrictions imposed by the Hamas government. Most of the international organizations that once employed thousands of Palestinians have left. Today, according to human rights organizations, about 85% of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip rely on charities and aid provided by various institutions. Hamas's failure to improve medical services has resulted in the death of more than 190 patients in the past year. However, the Hamas-run Health Ministry continues to blame Israel for the deaths because of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and its refusal to grant permission to patients to leave the area. Yet all this has hardly affected Hamas's standing in the Gaza Strip, according to many Palestinians living there. "As long as the Palestinians don't see a better alternative to Hamas, they will continue to support the movement," a Palestinian editor from Gaza City said. "The only way to get rid of Hamas is by offering the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas. Many Palestinians still don't trust Fatah because of its failure to reform itself and remove all the corrupt leaders." Hamas's main concern is that the Palestinians will one day revolt against the movement if the situation in the Gaza Strip continues to deteriorate. This explains why the movement is desperate to reach a cease-fire agreement with Israel; such a truce would allow Hamas to claim "victory" over Israel and the US and to further consolidate its authority in the Gaza Strip. Undoubtedly, Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah would emerge as the biggest losers from any cease-fire agreement.