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.

Few Gazans are making any money these days. There are the shopkeepers who profit from selling cooking oil to fuel motorists' dilapidated diesels and the donkey-cart drivers who find more fares every day.

But for most, the economy in Gaza has ground to a halt a year after the Islamists of Hamas routed the secular Fatah Party in a violent coup.

Today, Hamas's year in power is felt everywhere. While Gaza suffers under an Israeli blockade, it has been changed from a lawless territory to one that is relatively safe. But by most Western standards of governance, Hamas has failed.

Hospitals lack medicine. Raw sewage streams into the sea. Drinking water is in short supply. People continue to die almost daily in the ongoing conflict with Israel. All the exits to Gaza are shut. Even the glimmer of a cease-fire with Israel does not arouse much hope that any improvement is around the corner.

Now Hamas finds itself at a crossroads. After evolving from an Islamist resistance movement to a political titan influencing regional and global politics, it faces possible war with Israel while at the same time it still maintains support among Palestinians for its ongoing defiance.

"The mistake of Hamas was to be in government and resistance at the same time," says Eyad Sarraj, an independent politician and the Gaza commissioner of the Palestinian Independent Human Rights Committee. "If they get rid of their extreme ideas, they can do much better. They have a moral power they haven't even used yet," which stems from their lack of personal corruption.

But Gaza has been under an almost total siege for the past year imposed by Israel and backed by the West.

"The closure and the occupation are responsible for the situation," says Oman Marough, a Palestinian from the poor northern town of Jabaliyah. "With all kind of difficulties, I'm still supporting Hamas and supporting them in the government. We should carry with them the responsibility of suffering."

Such sentiments are common, and lend some credence to the claim of Hamas leaders that the people remain allied with them in their struggle against Israel.

The people of Gaza "are suffering not because of our policy," says Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar. "It's because of Israeli occupation, it's because of the previous corruption, it's because of the sanctions implemented on the Palestinian side. So we have to differentiate between the people who are doing their utmost effort in order to minimize the suffering and the people who are inflicting the suffering by force."

On a recent afternoon in Jabaliyah, dozens of donkey-cart drivers awaited fares. It's 60 cents to travel a few blocks.

A severe fuel shortage has forced motorists to buy soybean oil to replace the diesel fuel and gasoline that Israel now provides to Gaza at a severely diminished quantity. Cooking oil sells for around $8 per gallon while gasoline on the black market costs $50 per gallon. Obtaining gasoline and diesel legally requires weeks of waiting for fuel rationed by Hamas to between 10 and 50 liters per car.

Even more than fuel, smugglers in the southern city of Rafah say the highest product in demand these days is women's underwear. Cigarettes are also a popular item and are perhaps the only good in Gaza that is cheaper now than before since they are sold without a tobacco tax.

But Gazans have even larger concerns.

According to the United Nations, 80 percent of Gazans are now dependent on some form of humanitarian aid, in part because of the suspension of 96 percent of Gaza's industrial operations since the Israeli blockade stopped raw materials from being imported. A year ago, 6,500 people here worked in furniture manufacturing and 25,000 in the garment industry. As of January, those numbers dropped to zero and 75, respectively.

And yet Hamas will not relent. "It's not worth it. We are not going to give any concessions to the Israelis regarding our high national interests or the principal inalienable rights of the Palestinian people," says Ahmed Yousef, a chief political adviser to the Hamas leadership.

Part of the reason for Hamas's stance is that most Gazans, even if they did not vote for Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, still blame Israel and America for their hardships.

Jamal Abu Khader, the owner of a once-thriving plumbing businesses in Gaza City, calls both Hamas and Fatah "rubbish." But, he says, "whether it is Hamas or Fatah ruling Gaza, the responsibility is from the outside. It is not Hamas's fault."

Another reason for Hamas's support here is the dramatic improvement in security over the last year.

Since Hamas took over, clan and family warfare, and the violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah, have all but vanished. There is no ambiguity now over who is in charge, as there was after Israel withdrew in 2005. Hamas police in blue and black camouflage, and its executive force dressed in all-black vests, T-shirts, and pants, now patrol the streets.

But critics of Hamas say that the increased security, along with the support the Islamist group claims from Gazans, is a result of intimidation and a denial of freedom of expression.

When Hamas took over a year ago, their fighters shot Fatah loyalists in the knees and beat them when already in custody, and in a few shocking cases, pushed them off rooftops to their deaths.

"There is a heavy atmosphere of fear," Mr. Saraj, the human rights commissioner, says. "Hamas has its admirers, but some people fear them and speak up, and some people fear them and remain silent. I think the majority here are silent."

That claim is repeated by Ashraf Jomar, a legislator from Fatah who represents Rafah. "Hamas took over by power and by guns," Mr. Jomar says, pointing to a bullet hole in the wall of his fifth-floor office. "This gave people fear and caused the people to shut up and not react."

Jomar says many Fatah activists still fear for their security, including him, and that the police and courts do not treat them fairly. He also says that being secure is defined not only in physical terms.

"Did they succeed in introducing any improvement to the Gaza people? The answer is 'no,' " he says.

Hamas Minister of Justice Ahmad Shwedeh admits that there were "problems" with the behavior of Hamas fighters following the takeover, but he says that the government is now implementing the law without political bias.

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.

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.

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