In Gaza, surge of support for Hamas starts to fade


Young boys pick through the ruins of a recently bombed building, gathering books from the wreckage, in Jabaliya Refugee Camp in Gaza on Nov. 28, 2012. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)
November 30, 2012

Strung across chaotic streets and through mazes of yard-wide alleys, the iconic green flags of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, festoon the gray acres of cement-block buildings.

Here in the streets where Hamas was born a quarter-
century ago, the public trappings of ascendant Islamist power are impossible to miss.

After prayers, men old enough to remember the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which began a decades-long occupation of Gaza, say Hamas has finally won a fight with Israel and should march on Tel Aviv.

But as the nervous ecstasy of conflict gives way to a grim status quo, there are signs, even here, that any power Hamas has derived from its recent confrontation with Israel is fading. The change in popular sentiment is occurring gradually, along generational and gender lines, and suggests a limit to any political benefits for Hamas gained through armed conflict.

As older men speak of an imminent return to lost family land inside Israel, many younger men, who grew up in the bitter decades after the first Palestinian uprising, ask what precisely Hamas accomplished during the eight-day confrontation last month.

So, too, do some of this refu­gee camp’s women.

“What kind of victory?” asked Um Ram Abu Rokba, covered in traditional Islamic attire as she walked home from afternoon prayer. “They are lying to the people. It is a kind of blackmail.”

As groups of children gathered around her, Abu Rokba, who would give only her nickname, said, “The Jews are hurt, we are hurt. If they lose a child, they cry. If we lose a child, we cry. It is the same. My own wish is only peace and security.”

It is not the message of the Hamas leadership, as it prepares for an expansive celebration in December to mark the 25th anniversary of a movement classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

Facing an increasingly restless population in Gaza before the recent conflict, Hamas has emerged more popular after it, but whether the support will endure remains to be seen.

Since taking full control of the enclave after a brief but brutal fight with the secular Fatah movement five years ago, Hamas has imposed, bit by bit, a form of Islamist rule at which many Gazans chafe.

New mosques, already plentiful here, are being built across the strip at a time when many Gazans need houses. Bikinis, once permitted in semi-private oceanfront clubs, have been banned from Gaza’s beaches, where women wade into the clear Mediterranean waters in heavy ankle-length tunics. Men and women socializing together at night are often asked by Hamas police for proof of marriage.

But the recent wartime display of Hamas’s new arsenal — with rockets that reached Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem — has boosted morale among some Gazans.

Alongside the fading billboards marking the deaths of Palestinians in past conflicts with Israel are posters memorializing those killed in the latest one. Children pick through ruins of newly bombed houses, green banners marking the sites.

Morale-boosting arsenal

To Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas founder and the movement’s foreign minister, Hamas’s performance proved decisively that only military action against Israel, rather than the negotiations favored by Fatah and the United States, will secure a Palestinian state.

“The most important fact that has emerged from this is Hamas’s ability to convince all Palestinians of our way,” Zahar said in an interview. “We gave Fatah a full opportunity to implement its way, and it failed.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader, favors a two-state solution to the long-standing conflict that envisions a Palestinian state emerging in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — territories that Israel occupied in the 1967 war.

On Thursday, Abbas, in defiance of American and Israeli wishes, received United Nations approval for upgraded diplomatic status that, in effect, recognizes a Palestinian state in concept alongside Israel.

“This brings nothing to us except disadvantages,” said Zahar, whose home along a sandy street in Gaza City is pocked from what he called “Fatah bullets” from the 2007 fighting. “First, our land is not just the West Bank and Gaza, and that is important. It is all of Palestine.”

The rockets that reached farthest in the recent clash are called M-75s, the number denoting their range in kilometers. Zahar, a doctor by training, said that “they are entirely a Palestinian creation,” rather than something imported from Iran.

There are many more, he said, and more will be made.

But Hamas is also hailing its patrons in Iran, a tactic that appears designed to shame Arab states into providing fresh support. Iran provides the movement with money, training and, according to Israeli officials, other kinds of rockets.

Two new billboards have been put up along Salahuddin Road, the strip’s main north-south highway, thanking Iran in four languages for its support in the recent conflict. In the background, the Palestinian and Iranian flags are shown blending.

Visions of victory, loss

Kamal Ajrami, a 54-year-old police officer, said he believes that a military victory over Israel is possible.

“As much as the Jews did to us, it is different now,” Ajrami said as he left a mosque here. “We have now reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We are strong, and as they hit us in our houses, they will feel the same now in theirs.”

The lingering dreams of an older generation, though, draw a skeptical response from the younger one.

A poster of Abdullah Muzannar hangs in the window of his family’s sweet shop here. In it, an image of his smiling face is superimposed on a likeness of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, the central icon in all “martyr” montages.

Muzannar was 19, a university student who wanted to be a chemistry teacher, when he was killed in an Israeli airstrike on the home of a neighbor aligned with Hamas.

Inside the shop, Sami Badawi, 26, works behind a counter crowded with sticky pastries and cakes. On the night before he died, Muzannar rushed to the hospital when he heard that Badawi’s 7-month-old son had been taken there with a fever, staying throughout the night and offering to pay any bills.

“He loved my son,” said Badawi, a tall, rail-thin man with dark circles under his eyes.

He continued, “Victory for what? For the people who died in this war? Abdullah was my best friend, and this was all just losses.”

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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