Of the many complaints in Gaza, one has become a popular refrain: the increasing taxes levied by Hamas. Fathi Abu Gamar, a gas station owner in Jabaliya refugee camp, readily joins the chorus: The Islamist movement that rules this tiny coastal territory takes more than half his revenue from gas sales, he says, leaving him with a tiny profit.
But he quickly becomes quiet when a man, whom neighbors identify as a Hamas informer, begins hovering nearby, listening intently. Above him, the green flags of Hamas flutter in the strong sea breeze. Like Hamas's popularity, they are faded and tattered.
Hamas has been steadily losing support among Gaza's 1.6 million residents after winning elections in 2006 and violently ousting its secular rival, Fatah, the following year.
Now, however, its popularity has fallen to a new low due because of its opposition to a bid for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations – a move spearheaded by Fatah leader and Hamas rival Mahmoud Abbas – or Abu Mazen, as he's known here.
"Hamas is against Abu Mazen," says Yasmine Al Nabeeh, a young Gazan woman who supports the statehood bid now under consideration by the United Nations Security Council. "So any step he takes, they are against it, even if it's for the benefit of Palestine."
Hamas loses its luster as true defender of Palestinians
The statehood bid, if successful, would give Palestinians full membership in the UN – and, Palestinian Authority President Abbas has argued, greater leverage against Israel. But it would also require his people to renounce their claims to land conquered by Israel in its war of independence with Arab neighbors.
Hamas has positioned itself as the true defender of Palestinian rights in the face of Israeli aggression and has cast the UN play as an unsavory compromise. But Gazans, who have faced a brutal war with Israel and tight Israeli sanctions since Hamas took over, appear increasingly tired of a government that they see as just as corrupt as the Fatah one it replaced.
Many see Hamas's opposition to the statehood bid as being motivated by self-interest at the expense of the national good and think it does not bode well for reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. Such rapprochement would be essential to creating a functional state on the two Palestinian territories.
Abbas's statehood bid, however impractical, is seen by many as a bold new approach after years of stalled talks with Israel. For that, it has won the respect of many Gazans, even those who are Hamas supporters. (See sidebar, next page.)
"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."
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."