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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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Many of the lawyers and judges that now populate the courts here were drafted by Hamas following the resignations of previous legal workers a year ago who followed directives from the Fatah government in Ramallah to resign. The judges and lawyers are from various political parties, Mr. Shwedeh says.

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Though secular Gazans feared that the Islamist Hamas would seek to impose sharia (Islamic law), the legal system here still relies on the same laws as it did before, with only family law settled by Islamic courts. However, there are reports of judges bending the law so that rulings comply with sharia.

As for freedom of expression, the justice minister says those who wish to demonstrate need only apply for permission from the police, as the law states. But, he adds: "In Arab countries, they are not giving such [wide] space for demonstrations in the streets against the government." Hamas has also taken to filtering the Internet.

Hamas has difficult decisions to make regarding the conflict with Israel and its place in the Arab world.

Through Cairo, it has offered Israel a cease-fire in return for the opening of the Rafah crossing to Egypt and an easing of the economic boycott and restrictions on movement for the people here. Foreign Minister Zahar says the cease-fire could come within a few weeks.

Yet Hamas continues to attack Israel with rockets at an almost daily clip and to hold the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whose captivity has now lasted two years.

"They've turned themselves into a key element within the inter-Arab relationship and have affected the Arab camp relationship with Israel, says Shaul Mishal, the author of "The Palestinian Hamas" and a professor at Tel Aviv University.

But without a major Israeli offensive, Hamas also faces the problem of the world turning its attention from the situation in Gaza, Mr. Mishal says.

Prominent Gaza businessman Maamon Khozendar, who is unaffiliated politically, says that Hamas will not succeed in the long run if it continues to alienate nations other than Israel. "You can't put yourself against the world," he says.

Saraj also warns that "Hamas must brace itself for a major blow. You can't run a state without an economy."

Mornings at the Sufa crossing illustrate just how swiftly that blow could come.

Even from the first truck in line, the drivers lined up here facing the Israeli border can only see a swirl of dust and some faint movement within. But their lives, and the lives of nearly every one of the 1.4 million people who live in Gaza, depend on those distant forms that cannot be approached without significant risk to life and limb from the Israeli soldiers guarding them.

Six days per week, from around 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., around 60 Israeli trucks under heavy guard dump basic supplies at Sufa – wheat, rice, produce, dairy products, and medicines – that just barely sustain Gaza. Numerous attacks by Hamas and other militant factions have made the Israelis edgy, so the Palestinian truck drivers must wait to collect the goods, all of which but the dairy products sit baking for hours under the hot Mediterranean sun, until all the Israelis have safely returned to their side of the border.

Without those supplies, what meager existence the people of Gaza manage to eke out at the moment would vanish.