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Analysis: For Hamas, a validation

Armed resistance to Israel wins Hamas friends in the streets and among Arab neighbors.

By , Correspondent , Correspondent

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    Fishermen bring their daily catch to the market near the Gaza City port. Life goes on in Gaza despite eight days of fighting with Israel that has ended for now.
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(Editor's Note: This story ran in the Monitor's print magazine as an analysis of the immediate aftermath of the latest Gaza conflict.)

Palestinians in Gaza are rebuilding homes and businesses and mourning the 176 residents who died in the latest round of fighting with Israel.

Israel killed the head of Hamas's militant wing and claims to have destroyed much of its missile arsenal. But despite all that, Hamas has emerged from the conflict looking like the victor to most Palestinians.

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For the first time, it launched rockets that could reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and it emerged with a cease-fire agreement that Hamas leaders say met all of their demands, including ending assassinations of their leaders and a lifting of the Israeli blockade on the territory. A string of Arab government ministers also flocked to Gaza in a sign of Hamas's new allies in the region.

And all of these achievements came not through negotiations, but through armed resistance, validating Hamas's controversial strategy.

"We seek the end of occupation, and the return of Palestinians to their homes, and that will never happen with discussions and negotiations," says Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas's second-highest political official. "We tried this, and the loss was doubled. This should happen with resistance."

Blockade to ease?

The main concession Hamas wrested from Israel – ending or easing the blockade on Gaza – has not yet been implemented. But the fact that Hamas emerged from the deal with an Israeli commitment to lift the blockade, and that border restrictions have eased, is enough for now.

Wresting any kind of concessions from Israel is a feat. Abu Marzouk boasts that this cease-fire was the first time in history Israel offered such specific concessions.

"The Palestinians are on the side of the party that targets the occupier who kills and destroys our life. And Hamas did what the Palestinians want to see. I'm very proud of Hamas," says Sameh Youssif, an accountant in Gaza.

The eight-day conflict bolstered the idea that the Palestinian cause is better advanced by armed resistance than negotiations, or at least that the two tactics must be employed together. It also left the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, looking entirely irrelevant. Mr. Abbas has steadfastly insisted on a negotiations-only track.

Ahmed Murtaja, a Gazan toy-store owner, says he supports Mr. Abbas's Fatah party but admires Hamas for "defending the Palestinian people.

"For the first time, I feel that we have a strong army that's able to deter any aggression. When Israel uses its huge military against the Palestinians, the response should be military as well," he says. "This does not mean that the conflict shouldn't be solved peacefully. I believe that we need both resistance and negotiations – resistance is our shield and negotiations without it is meaningless.... A negotiator is weak without a strong resistance at his back."

Israeli officials have not yet indicated they intend to lift the blockade. Both sides were tight-lipped about their negotiations in Cairo at the end of the month.

But Abu Marzouk warned that if the siege is not lifted, Hamas will not keep its promise to stop firing on Israel.

"If we don't reach this agreement, there is no truce," he says.

New regional allies for Hamas

The Gaza conflict also put a spotlight on the movement's new allies in the region, including the new Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia. The visits by Arab officials, as well as a visit by the emir of Qatar before the conflict, showed growing recognition of Hamas as a legitimate government.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to Egypt for cease-fire negotiations was another diplomatic victory. Having the United States push for an agreement between Israel and an entity the US considers to be a terrorist organization – and refuses to speak to – was an important moment, says Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies the Middle East.

"It was very remarkable that ... you had an American secretary of State travel to the region essentially to oversee indirect negotiations with Hamas," Dr. Brown says. "That was a development the significance of which in international terms really can't be understated."

And while huge protests against Islamist Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi have filled the streets of Cairo in response to his domestic power grab, Hamas leaders have heaped praise on him for his role as broker. Mr. Morsi proved to be much more sympathetic to Hamas than was his predecessor, US ally Hosni Mubarak.

Hamas officials even expressed understanding of Morsi's reluctance to go further in his support, either by breaking his government's ties with Israel or fully opening the Egyptian border with Gaza at Rafah. Egypt worries that doing so would give Israel an excuse to close its crossings with Gaza and shift the burden of caring for Gaza's people to Egypt.

The conflict also offered Hamas a way to burnish an image that tarnished over the past five years ras it became not just a resistance movement but a government.

The group's takeover of Gaza in 2007 brought on the Israeli blockade, which has caused enormous economic hardship in the territory and sowed discontent.

Corruption concerns

Other factors have also chipped away at its legitimacy. Many Gazans say the Hamas government has become just as corrupt as the one it replaced, which was dominated by Fatah. It has cracked down on dissent and public protests. And it has struggled to retain its reputation as a resistance movement while simultaneously trying to stop smaller, more extreme armed factions from firing rockets at Israel.

"Hamas also stood firm during the negotiations for the truce deal until most of its demands were met. Under the cease-fire deal, the blockade of Gaza will be lifted, and Hamas cannot be criticized by Gazans for bringing the blockade and poverty to Gaza," says Assad Abu Sharkh, a former Palestinian Liberation Organization diplomat.

"The new projects financed by Hamas's ally Qatar will provide hundreds of thousands of people with jobs; the crossings will open; the sea is open. Why should Gazans criticize Hamas if this is going to happen?"

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