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Hamas popularity hits a new low after opposing UN statehood bid

The UN statehood bid, led by Hamas rival Mahmoud Abbas, has deepened the rift between Gazans and their Islamist rulers.

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"For so many years now we could not achieve anything," says Ahmed El Helou, who owns a shop selling women's head scarves and accessories in the Shejaeya market in Gaza City. "It was a brave move from Abu Mazen, and whatever the outcome is we respect what he did."

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Why Hamas opposed statehood bid

Hamas has never trusted the UN, which it sees as dominated by US and Israeli interests, so it is natural that it would not be enthusiastic about turning to the organization to secure statehood.

But what really angered Hamas appears to be Abbas's decision to go to the UN without consulting the movement. This spring the two sides had agreed in principle to heal the four-year rift that has paralyzed Palestinian governance and delayed new elections.

"Hamas people expected Abu Mazen to take certain steps with implementing national reconciliation," says Ahmed Youssef, a member of Hamas who disagrees with the movement's opposition to the statehood bid but explains its frustration. "But he ignored that and put it aside, and he didn't consult them.... All the time this is the way he's treating Hamas."

But the decision wasn't made only out of anger. Many Gazans see reconciliation as the real battleground and say Hamas made a tactical decision, calculating that if Abbas came back without UN recognition, Hamas's position in reconciliation negotiations would be stronger. That would give it more leverage on issues that are still to be decided, such as whether its armed wing would be forced to turn in its weapons.

"I think an American veto, or a delay – both are not good results for Abu Mazen," says Hamas government spokesman Taher al-Nounu. "It's not an achievement."

Yet even if Hamas gets the upper hand in reconciliation negotiations, few Gazans expect more than a few cosmetic changes, with Hamas continuing to rule Gaza and Fatah the West Bank. "I don't think they will truly reorganize themselves," says Talal Okal, a Gaza political analyst.

Miscalculation by Hamas?

Hamas may have miscalculated in betting that a failure at the UN Security Council would weaken Abbas.

The PA president has garnered respect for defying America and Israel by presenting his request. Many have little expectation of seeing results on the ground, and anger from a stymied bid is likely to be directed more toward the United States and Israel than Abbas.

And while Hamas opposes Abbas's position, it has not offered an alternative strategy and appears content to enjoy the benefits of power while Gazans suffer.

A joke circulating the territory posits that the reason Hamas's armed wing, Al Qassam Brigades, has stopped firing rockets at Israel is that the fighters' jeeps lack air conditioning. Residents tell stories of Hamas officials who used to drive modest cars now sporting luxury vehicles, and Gazans like Mr. Gamar, the gas station owner, complain the government is reaching into their pockets in every way it can.

But for now at least, Hamas doesn't appear to see an urgent need to change the status quo.

"Why have the final solution now?" asks Mr. Nounu, the Hamas spokesman. "Let the next generation find the solution."

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