Hamas wins over its doubters in Gaza with battlefield prowess

Economic stagnation and political frustration steadily eroded Gazans' support for Hamas after it took over in 2006, but support is rebounding because it is seen as standing up to Israel.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Birds fly as a plume of smoke is seen over central Gaza Strip, after an airstrike by Israeli forces, as seen from the Israel Gaza border, Monday. Israel’s fresh offensive, and Hamas’s heightened ability to fight back, appears to be polishing its image in the eyes of Gazans.

Hamas’s headquarters, commanders, and weapons caches may have taken big hits in the past week, but not its popularity, which appears to be rebounding. Gazans fed up with the Islamist organization’s government of Gaza, including its high taxes, alleged corruption, and strict interpretation of Islam, have put such concerns aside to champion the group’s willingness to take a stand against Israel.

Even supporters here of Fatah, Hamas’s bitter rival, are rallying behind it.

"Hamas’s popularity is getting bigger in Gaza, not only because it has been delivering blows to Israel, but also because it is not … [what] ignited the violence, like the previous war in 2008,” says Mustafa Ibrahim, a writer and political analyst from Gaza. “This time Gazans are sympathizing with the resistance that's led by Hamas.”

After winning 2006 elections by a landslide, Hamas saw its support steadily slip – particularly after the 2008-09 war with Israel, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead and reduced many buildings to rubble. Gazans had enormous difficulty rebuilding, particularly in the months following the war, due to an economic blockade imposed by Israel and supported by Egypt under former President Hosni Mubarak – a policy which critics said was collective punishment aimed at turning Gazans against their Hamas rulers. Its failure to reconcile with Fatah after violently ousting the faction in 2007 also dampened local support.

Hamas shows prowess

But now Israel’s fresh offensive, and Hamas’s heightened ability to fight back, appears to be polishing its image in the eyes of Gazans.

“Of course I feel satisfied with what Hamas has done. They are doing everything possible to defend us,” says Amjad Muharram, a young engineer and Fatah supporter. “What surprised me is the new tactics of Hamas in running the fight; their losses are nothing compared to [their] losses in the previous war. They have very effective weapons that have changed the rules of the game. They really have caused harm to Israel.”

Karam Alborno, an accountant and owner of computer shop, agrees. "In my opinion, this is the first time the Palestinians defeat Israel in a war thanks to Hamas,” he says.

While some observers have voiced concern that Israel’s campaign in Gaza could deepen residents’ hatred for Israel, perpetuating the security threat posed by Gaza, Yehuda Ben Meir of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies guffaws at the suggestion that Israel should hold back out of fear of strengthening Hamas.

“If you don’t do anything, Hamas has a free hand to continue attacking … that line of argument has no weight. The conclusion is preposterous,” he says.

Making Israelis duck

While only three Israelis have been killed in the barrage of more than 1,000 rockets that Gaza militants have launched in the past week, some residents have had to duck into bomb shelters as often as every 10 minutes as sirens wail across southern Israel.

“Our morale is very high because Israel is finally feeling what we have been feeling, they are in panic now and spend time at shelters...” says Mr. Alborno, who hints that Hamas’s newfound support comes with conditions.

“But I hope that Hamas will change its attitude when the conflict ends. They must take care of the people in Gaza. We have been suffering from the high taxes Hamas imposed on us, the problem of electricity and unemployment; the oppression of Hamas security must end. If Hamas do this, I believe all Palestinians will be Hamas supporters."

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