After Gaza war Hamas on a high – but for how long? (+video)

Hamas has seen a short-term surge in support from Palestinians following its recent war with Israel. But with the massive needs of the Gaza Strip still to be met, support may falter.

By , Staff writer

Across this shattered coastal strip, Palestinians overwhelmingly endorse the recent war as a victory over Israel in which Hamas and other resistance groups stood up to their common enemy for 51 days.

Take Samieh Sheikh, a supporter of Hamas’s rival, Fatah. His house was destroyed in the 2009 war and had just been rebuilt. Now it is severely damaged. But even as his family of 25 crunch across the rubble in their living room they show no bitterness toward Hamas.

“To achieve the victory was much more important than the house,” says Mr. Sheikh.

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He’s not alone. According to a new poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would trounce Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were a two-man election to be held today. That puts Hamas back in pole position for the first time since 2006. The group’s TV station, Al Aqsa, has become the No. 1 channel watched by Palestinians – by a margin of 15 percentage points. And 70 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank say they want to adopt Hamas’s armed approach. 

That’s all bad news for Mr. Abbas, who has staked his leadership on nonviolence and negotiations with Israel. But some caution that Hamas’s popularity could deteriorate, especially if intra-Palestinian feuding means that reconstruction of Gaza goes nowhere after its most devastating war yet.

The scale of destruction is estimated to be roughly three times worse than in 2009, due in part to the cumulative effects of three conflicts in less than six years. Nearly a quarter of Gaza’s 1.8 million people were displaced by the war, with an estimated 100,000 left homeless. Electricity, water, and sewage systems were badly damaged.

While Hamas and Fatah established a unity government in early June meant to govern both territories, it has not taken responsibility for running Gaza, so many people still look to Hamas to address their needs.

“If Hamas is not going to rebuild and reconstruct these homes quickly, Hamas’s popularity is going to go down,” says Mkhaimer Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University.

Urgent needs, slow pace

The extent to which Hamas retains its popularity depends in part on the actions of Israel and the United States, which hold the key to reviving the appeal of Abbas's nonviolent track.

“All of those who lost their sons and houses and factories are not going to say they’re against the resistance … this is normal,” says Ashraf Jomaa, a Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) who lives in Gaza. “The Americans carry a big responsibility for what’s happening here, because they have the strength to pressure Israel.”

Israel controls Gaza's airspace, waters, and sole border crossing for goods, and its restrictions on the supply of building materials and other essential goods into Gaza will severely hamper reconstruction in the territory if they aren't lifted. Israel says the restrictions - imposed since Hamas took power in 2007 – are needed to deny Hamas arms and so-called dual-use items, including cement.

Palestinians want the US and other Western countries to pressure Israel to lift restrictions on the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza and push for Palestinian statehood with a capital in East Jerusalem.

Anger and revenge

During the war, Hamas enjoyed more support from Fatah despite their different ideas about how to get a Palestinian state.

A wounded fighter from Hamas's Al Qassam Brigades says that while he was in hospital, Fatah members were among his visitors. “They said, ‘God bless you, we are with the resistance, we are supporting you,’” he recounts.

But the political rivalry remains strong. Just three days after the start of the war, Abbas disdained those who “trade in the blood of the Palestinian people” in a pointed reproach of Hamas. While he later voiced support for the resistance, tensions reemerged after last week’s cease-fire, when he blamed Hamas for a war that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians.

Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister of the Hamas government until June, criticizes Abbas for making statements instead of taking action. Abbas has yet to visit Gaza since the war began, and only a few members of his government have come to see the destruction and talk with the people. He says government workers want Abbas to pay salaries, address the territory's deep economic woes, and spearhead reconstruction.  

“We told them, we are out of Gaza now and all the keys of Gaza are in your hand,” says Mr. Hamad.

'A barrel of TNT'

Palestinians warn that the combination of dire humanitarian needs and political frustration make Gaza more explosive than ever.

“This is a barrel of TNT,” says a businessman. The people of Gaza “need to feel their humanity and dignity, otherwise the West – the US and Israel – are forming an army of 1 million in the future. And I wonder what power can stop an army of 1 million, ready to die.”

Back at the Sheikhs’ house in Izbet Abed Rabbo, 8-year-old Nasrallah sings a song he learned while glued to the radio during the war, hoping for news of a cease-fire.

“Oh Mom, they destroyed our house,” the lyrics roughly translate, going on to reassure her that the rubble has put more stones in front of their hands, enabling them to fight back. “We are not terrorists, we are Palestinians; we have the right to defend our house and to build our house.”

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