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Battered Gaza Still In the Grip Of Hamas

Islamist Group Retains Strength Despite War

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), arrives in Israel as renewed clashes threaten a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after a 22-day conflict in the Gaza Strip.
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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.

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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."

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