In pummeled Gaza, Hamas recoups
Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Cairo Sunday in a bid to bolster the current cease-fire.
RAFAH, GAZA STRIP — Western and many Arab powers have tried to marginalize Hamas for its militancy, its fundamentalism, and its denial of Israel's right to exist. But Hamas's 22-day pummeling by Israel leaves it limping yet still standing – and therefore an organization to be reckoned with.
Hamas is banking on a new US administration and the fact that any cease-fire deal, international rebuilding, or humanitarian relief effort will have to include Hamas.
From where Ahmed Yousef sits, in the garden of a beautiful villa that escaped the Israeli pounding, Hamas might be better positioned than ever before. Outside the sprawling home, Dr. Yousef, a foreign-relations adviser to the Hamas government, is receiving international visitors. New green Hamas flags hang along the road meridians. Uniformed Hamas policemen are back on the street at major intersections. Ministers in the Hamas government, dozens of staffers in tow, tour the ruins of neighborhoods flattened by the Israeli military campaign – handing out cash and vowing to take charge of the rebuilding.
In a quick start to efforts by President Barack Obama's new administration to shore up a shaky Gaza truce and revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, his envoy, former US Sen. George Mitchell, is expected in Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday. His agenda, to date, does not include a meeting with Hamas .
But a week into the cease-fire, international leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said "no" to dealing with Hamas, now seem to be saying "maybe."
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are in need of assistance and the international community is keen to get it to them. It appears that the donors might need Hamas to help reverse the state of destruction and suffering across Gaza. Add to this a new US president who has expressed an openness to talking with controversial world figures seen as America's foes, and Hamas foresees the possibility of a shift in how it is received.
"The Americans and Europeans were mistaken to boycott Hamas from the start," says Yousef, who lived for many years in the US. While he sees the potential for an Obama administration opening, he says that he was disappointed by what he heard in President Obama's speech last week.
"I expected Obama to say that he will go and talk to everybody," Yousef says. "We'd like to see America as impartial, not just seeing Hamas as a terrorist group." He charged that the US, as the world's foremost salesman of democracy, was still refusing to recognize the results of the January 2006 parliamentary elections that brought Hamas to power.
"The people chose Hamas, and America and the rest of the world should respect that," he says.
In his first foreign policy speech on Thursday, Obama stuck close to the conditions that were set up by the Quartet – a four-party alliance that includes the UN, the US, the European Union, and Russia – for dealing with the crisis in the Middle East following Hamas' parliamentary victory three years ago.
"To be a genuine party to peace, the Quartet has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: Recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements," Obama said. But he also said access to Gaza must be part of the package.
"As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza's border crossings should be opened to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime with the international and Palestinian Authority participating," Obama said. "Relief efforts must be able to reach innocent Palestinians who depend on them."
French President Sarkozy is showing a willingness to talk to Hamas, shifting away from the Quartet's conditions that Hamas officials here say are non-starters. These include recognizing Israel and renouncing violence, which Hamas defines as resistance to occupation. Expressions by Hamas in favor of a two-state solution would itself be enough of a reason to engage in dialogue, Sarkozy has indicated.
Tony Blair, the EU's Middle East envoy, told reporters last week the bottom line was not the Quartet's requirements for talking to Hamas. "The issue is not whether we talk to Hamas or not," Mr. Blair said. "The issue is whether there is a basis for talking that allows us to make progress on the two-state solution."
Senior Palestinian and Israeli officials met in Cairo on Sunday, as part of a renewed a diplomatic effort to reach a more durable cease-fire. Israel proposed an 18-month ceasefire; Hamas wants 12 months, a Hamas official told Reuters. Hamas also wants Egypt to reopen its Gaza border crossing, which has often been closed since the militant group took control of Gaza in 2007.
In Brussels Sunday, European Union foreign ministers held talks with their counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority. The EU is eager to offer monitors, ships, and radar equipment to help secure Gaza's borders – and halt the smuggling of weapons by Hamas, the Associated Press reports.
Israel is allowing some supply convoys into Gaza, though its borders remain largely closed. Israeli officials say more than 125 trucks a day have been going into Gaza since the cease-fire began on Jan. 17, according to the Associated Press.
"As a result of this war, Hamas has become much more famous in the eyes of the international community, and it has brought the question of access to Gaza to the attention of the world," says Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
"If there is to be a continuation of the cease-fire, the borders will have to be opened, and one way or another, someone has to deal with Hamas," he says, pointing to countries that are considered US allies which already do – such as Egypt and Turkey – as well as countries in the European Union, which are moving in that direction.
"When President Barack Obama said that the crossings here should be reopened, I think that was a positive signal toward Hamas," Professor Abusada says.
But the prospect of Western nations softening their position toward Hamas isn't necessarily matched among Palestinians. The sheer scale of devastation here, and the sluggishness of the arrival of meaningful aid, has some Gazans questioning whether Hamas has brought real gains for its people.
One family in the Zaitoun neighborhood south of Gaza City, an area particularly hard hit by the Israeli campaign, was picking through the debris of their half-crushed house over the weekend. Israeli tanks rolled through and destroyed several walls of their home. Now, they're using their shattered, old furniture for firewood.
They primarily blame Israel. But does Hamas share any responsibility? Zuhair Fatoum, the father of the family, frowns instead of answering directly. "We're not as strong as Israel," he says. "So the only way to get anything is through negotiations, not through missiles."
Battered but not beat, Hamas remains in control of Gaza. Its top local figures, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Dr. Mahmoud Zahhar, continue to keep their locations a secret, and have not come out in public because they believe they're still at risk of being targeted by Israel for assassination.
But other Hamas officials are in the spotlight again, and have been making the rounds of the most afflicted neighborhoods, promising to start distributing emergency aid. Hamas will not, said one senior Hamas figure as he toured an area of Zaitoun littered with squashed houses and hundreds of dead chickens, accept money that comes with strings attached.
"Our government will not accept the money to be a source of blackmailing," says Mohammed Awwad, a senior Hamas official. With a barb at the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, he rejected the possibility of forces loyal to President Mahmous Abbas playing a key role. "We will not accept that anyone who failed to enter Gaza on the backs of tanks will come on the backs of building machines," he said.