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A year later: Hamas still defiant, but Gazans continue to struggle

The Islamist militant group has controlled the coastal strip for a year now and says it will not relent to international pressure.

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Even more than fuel, smugglers in the southern city of Rafah say the highest product in demand these days is women's underwear. Cigarettes are also a popular item and are perhaps the only good in Gaza that is cheaper now than before since they are sold without a tobacco tax.

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But Gazans have even larger concerns.

According to the United Nations, 80 percent of Gazans are now dependent on some form of humanitarian aid, in part because of the suspension of 96 percent of Gaza's industrial operations since the Israeli blockade stopped raw materials from being imported. A year ago, 6,500 people here worked in furniture manufacturing and 25,000 in the garment industry. As of January, those numbers dropped to zero and 75, respectively.

And yet Hamas will not relent. "It's not worth it. We are not going to give any concessions to the Israelis regarding our high national interests or the principal inalienable rights of the Palestinian people," says Ahmed Yousef, a chief political adviser to the Hamas leadership.

Part of the reason for Hamas's stance is that most Gazans, even if they did not vote for Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, still blame Israel and America for their hardships.

Jamal Abu Khader, the owner of a once-thriving plumbing businesses in Gaza City, calls both Hamas and Fatah "rubbish." But, he says, "whether it is Hamas or Fatah ruling Gaza, the responsibility is from the outside. It is not Hamas's fault."

Another reason for Hamas's support here is the dramatic improvement in security over the last year.

Since Hamas took over, clan and family warfare, and the violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah, have all but vanished. There is no ambiguity now over who is in charge, as there was after Israel withdrew in 2005. Hamas police in blue and black camouflage, and its executive force dressed in all-black vests, T-shirts, and pants, now patrol the streets.

But critics of Hamas say that the increased security, along with the support the Islamist group claims from Gazans, is a result of intimidation and a denial of freedom of expression.

When Hamas took over a year ago, their fighters shot Fatah loyalists in the knees and beat them when already in custody, and in a few shocking cases, pushed them off rooftops to their deaths.

"There is a heavy atmosphere of fear," Mr. Saraj, the human rights commissioner, says. "Hamas has its admirers, but some people fear them and speak up, and some people fear them and remain silent. I think the majority here are silent."

That claim is repeated by Ashraf Jomar, a legislator from Fatah who represents Rafah. "Hamas took over by power and by guns," Mr. Jomar says, pointing to a bullet hole in the wall of his fifth-floor office. "This gave people fear and caused the people to shut up and not react."

Jomar says many Fatah activists still fear for their security, including him, and that the police and courts do not treat them fairly. He also says that being secure is defined not only in physical terms.

"Did they succeed in introducing any improvement to the Gaza people? The answer is 'no,' " he says.

Hamas Minister of Justice Ahmad Shwedeh admits that there were "problems" with the behavior of Hamas fighters following the takeover, but he says that the government is now implementing the law without political bias.