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Battered Gaza Still In the Grip Of Hamas
Islamist Group Retains Strength Despite War

By Griff Witte and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 24, 2009

GAZA CITY, Jan. 23 -- Israel waged war on Hamas for 22 days, but on the rubble-strewn streets of Gaza there is little question that the group retains a firm grip on power.

Hamas policemen wearing fatigues and cradling assault rifles stand guard at their usual posts, even where the buildings they have been assigned to protect no longer exist. Movement officials -- some still in hiding, some back in public -- coordinate cleanup efforts. And pro-Hamas preachers celebrate their "victory" in mosques overflowing with followers who say their devotion to the group has only grown after a war that cost nearly 1,300 Palestinian lives.

If there is any significant disenchantment with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it is largely hidden behind the fear that many feel in speaking out against the group.

In dozens of interviews across Gaza on Friday, less than a week after the start of a tenuous cease-fire, Palestinians generally expressed either unbridled support for Hamas or resignation to the idea that the group's reign in Gaza will continue for the foreseeable future. No one suggested that the group is vulnerable, despite the hopes of some Israeli officials who have theorized that their military campaign could ultimately spur Palestinians to rise up against Hamas rule.

Hamas's resilience as the preeminent power in Gaza reflects the Islamist movement's success in consolidating its authority long before the war began, analysts say. It also underscores the dividends that any Palestinian group can earn by standing up to Israel, no matter how disastrous the consequences. Hamas vowed to kill hundreds of Israelis, but Israel's final death toll was 13, including three civilians who died as a result of the persistent rocket fire from Gaza that Israel says prompted the war.

"I hope Hamas gets more and more power and launches more and more rockets. I ask God to keep them strong," said Abed Abu Jalhoum, 45, her face framed by a black head scarf and her feet bare as she sat on a cinder block in what was once her living room but is now only a floor with one crumbling, concrete wall.

Just down the road in Beit Lahiya, one of the worst-hit areas of Gaza, Ibrahim Amreen was using a shovel and a pick to sift through the remains of his home, searching for valuables. He said he is not a Hamas member but nonetheless fully supports the group's decision to engage Israel with violence, not talks.

"Everyone has the right to fight," said Amreen, a 55-year-old teacher. "How did the Americans get liberated? They fought. So why do they consider us terrorists? The Israelis are the terrorists, and the Americans give them their weapons to kill us."

Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and assumed full control of Gaza in June 2007 after violently ousting its rival, the more moderate Fatah party. Fatah, which holds sway in the West Bank, advocates negotiations with Israel toward the creation of a Palestinian state, while Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist.

Israeli officials said throughout the war that one of their goals was to deal a crushing defeat to Hamas, although they never said they were seeking to destroy the group altogether. They instead said they hoped to drive a wedge between Hamas and the people of Gaza, which they hoped someday could lead to the movement's overthrow. They also said they hoped to bolster Fatah.

Israel destroyed a wide array of Hamas facilities, including police stations, government ministries, a university building allegedly used for developing weapons, and smugglers' tunnels. Airstrikes killed two top Hamas leaders, Interior Minister Said Siam and Nizar Rayyan, a cleric who served as a liaison between Hamas's political and military wings. But most Hamas leaders survived, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh among them, and the homes of several of the movement's top officials made it through the war intact.

In announcing the cease-fire last Saturday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asserted that "Hamas's capabilities have been struck a heavy blow which will harm its ability to rule and its military capabilities for some time."

But on Friday, an Israeli military official said that Hamas remains fully in charge in Gaza and that dissenters have had to keep quiet.

"From the people that we have been speaking to in Gaza and from our assessment, there is criticism in Gaza towards Hamas," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It is not vocal because of fear."

That fear was apparent in Beit Hanoun, a Fatah stronghold.

"Hamas gave Israel justification to do what they are doing," said Bassem al-Abed, 36, who spoke beside a wall that had been creased with bullet holes. "We don't have real rockets. We don't have real power. We don't have an army like Israel. But now everyone has suffered, not just Hamas."

Abed grew silent, however, when a group of five men, several with long beards, wandered by and leaned into the conversation.

Another Beit Hanoun resident went further, belittling Hamas as "a toy of Iran and Syria" that is exclusively interested in holding on to power. But he would only give a nickname, Abu Mohammed, and said he feared for his life if Hamas found out what he had said. "No one can oppose them," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "They have control over everything."

On Thursday, Fatah official Yasser Abed Rabbo said at a news conference in the West Bank that Hamas had "turned its rifles in the direction of Fatah members" after the cease-fire with Israel on Sunday. He accused Hamas of shooting Fatah members in the kneecaps, a common intimidation tactic. Hamas denied the claim.

While Fatah members whisper their contempt for Hamas, Hamas backers in Gaza are far more comfortable broadcasting their beliefs, even though Israel has classified anyone affiliated with the group as a legitimate military target.

At the pro-Hamas al-Rhama mosque in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, Sheik Almad Nemer compared the war with Israel to historic struggles, such as the 7th-century Battle of Badr, in which the prophet Muhammad's 313 fighters defeated an army three times its size.

In a sermon that several of the 1,500 worshipers described as more defiant than usual, he accused Israel of understating its casualties, claiming that more than 200 Israeli soldiers had been killed and that a suicide bomber had destroyed a Merkava tank, killing everyone inside. Israel claims to have lost nine soldiers inside Gaza, none in suicide bombings.

"Just because we lost hundreds of martyrs and more than 5,000 wounded doesn't mean we are not victorious," he said. "The Israelis could hardly even get inside the cities of Gaza, because Allah is with the Muslims, not the Jews."

Nemer also warned worshipers not to be persuaded by what he called "deception" by Fatah. "Already they are trying to look down on the resistance and say we achieved nothing but the destruction of Gaza," he said. "Every war has its casualties, and we must be proud of our martyrs in heaven."

At the Palestine mosque in Gaza City, the Hamas economy minister, Ziyad al-Zaza, was among the worshipers, having come out of hiding days ago. The Hamas government, he said, had continued to operate throughout the war and remained firmly in control. "We are operating all things in Gaza -- security, the economy, health," he said, wearing a crisp, gray blazer and professing to have emerged from the war unscathed. "We stayed our ground. We defended our government."

Despite the bravado, Palestinian political analyst Mkhaimar Abu Sada said that Hamas knows it was beaten badly in the war and that it is unlikely to do anything to provoke more conflict because of the heavy toll on the civilian population.

"Hamas is declaring victory, but in reality it's a catastrophe," said Abu Sada, a professor at Gaza's al-Azhar University. "The massive destruction that Israel inflicted will make Hamas and any other Palestinian group think twice before launching rockets in the future."

He added that Hamas is likely to try to focus on reconstruction and the need to provide tangible improvements for Gazans, who have seen their quality of life plummet in the 19 months since Hamas took control.

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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