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Hamas optimism vs. Fatah despair

In Hamas-controlled Gaza, Palestinian militants express a new enthusiasm for the coastal strip, while their Fatah counterparts face growing disillusionment.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 2007

Gaza City, Gaza; and Ramallah, West Bank

Even in the face of possible economic collapse, Hamas leaders want to figure out a better way to collect garbage in Gaza. The Islamist movement, which now controls the coastal strip, is working out ways to create new jobs and reduce petty crime.

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A new enthusiasm has swept through this territory in the aftermath of the violent split in June between the two Palestinian factions. Among many young Gazans there is excitement for a Palestinian enclave that fully embraces the principles of their Islamic Resistance Movement without the interference of Fatah rivals.

"We've taken control, we've gotten rid of people who were collaborating with Israel, and we've restored order," says Khalil al-Haja, a mid-ranking member of Hamas Qassem Brigade militia. "Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] will eventually have to realize that we're hear to stay. In six months, we'll be reunited."

While that vision may indeed be only a Hamas dream, the good spirits among Hamas officials in Gaza are in stark contrast to the low morale of their Fatah counterparts.

In talking to Fatah members in the West Bank, a picture of despair, disorganization, and exhaustion emerges, not only due to what they feel was a humiliating defeat at the hands of their rivals but because Fatah as a movement appears to be losing touch with its own ideological moorings.

The differences call into question the current US strategy for dealing with the Palestinians: give Mr. Abbas legitimacy, prod the Israelis to improve daily life in the West Bank, and isolate Hamas in an economically desperate Gaza.

Though Gaza's economy is weakening, there is every sign that Hamas is inexorably bolstering its position.

"Audiences in the US have a strong feeling of black and white and they're betting on which side will win based on whether it agrees with them," says Mouin Rabbani, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. "But there's an issue that is overlooked: The virtual disintegration of Fatah."

Neither side has shown themselves to be paragons of democracy. In the West Bank, hundreds Hamas activists have been jailed for their political beliefs since June, gunmen out of uniform are frequently seen on city streets, and the local security forces are seen by many average citizens as unruly thugs.

In Gaza, while unarmed volunteers untangle crippling traffic, there have been recent indications that the Hamas-controlled security forces are growing more thuggish. In the past week, they have arrested at least 11 Fatah activists and, on Monday, forcibly tried to disperse a pro-Fatah protest.

Hamas's Executive Force, an offshoot of its Qassem Brigade militia that now acts as the strip's de facto police, has stepped up its own brand of political repression. On Monday, the group said all political demonstrations in Gaza would require licenses before being allowed to go ahead, and the group also recently closed a Fatah-controlled radio station.

Over the weekend, a fight broke out between Executive Force members and guests at a Fatah wedding party. Hamas said it took action because gunshots were fired at the wedding (Hamas has tried to ban this tradition since falling bullets frequently kill bystanders); Fatah supporters said they had merely been singing pro-Fatah songs.