The surge in popularity Hamas receives each time it unleashes rockets on Israel is predictable by now. The frustration voiced by Palestinians in Gaza who blame Hamas for pursuing its own interests while their homes get reduced to rubble is less expected.
The destruction wrought by Israeli airstrikes in this latest escalation, which some see as a Hamas attempt to deflect attention from its increasing woes, has embittered Gazans like Abu Shadi al-Wehedi.
“The timing reveals everything. Hamas is suffering politically and financially and every Palestinian knows that the wars bring money. After every war donations pours into Gaza,” says Mr. al-Wehedi, a taxi driver whose home was badly damaged when Israel bombed his Hamas neighbor.
“After the strike, Hamas officials came to check on their colleagues to support financially and morally, but none of them has even asked about what happened to my family and house,” he says. “I have worked hard for 14 years to build this house, and it was destroyed in a fraction of a second. I and my seven children are homeless now.”
By midday today, 103 Palestinians had been killed and more than 600 injured in Israeli strikes on more than 900 targets.
While Israel says it tries to limit civilian casualties through a combination of precise technology, warning leaflets, and telephone calls to families whose homes will be bombed imminently, at least 69 of those killed so far were civilians, according to a detailed report from the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. More than 400 homes have been destroyed, it added. Israel blames Hamas militants for making civilian deaths unavoidable since they operate in densely populated areas.
Hamas tried to keep a lid on rocket fire from other militant groups after it reached a cease-fire with Israel in November 2012, partially in a bid to reconcile with Fatah in the West Bank, which officially abandoned violence years ago. That restraint dented Hamas’s street cred as a resistance movement.
Now, as rockets set off sirens in Israel's biggest cities, it is rapidly repairing that dent.
“The Israelis only understand the language of power, we have been negotiating with them for decades, but negotiations did not work because of Israel's procrastination,” says Hammam Ahmed, a businessman from Gaza City, who hopes the fighting will pressure Israel and Egypt to open the border crossings to freer movement of goods and people. “I never loved Hamas, and never will, but I really admire them. They die to let people live."
The movement's popularity is skyrocketing. Never mind that it has lost key patrons in Iran, Syria, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, or that it had been backed into a corner by its secular rival Fatah and forced to sign a reconciliation agreement that severely limits its power. Never mind that its officials introduced strict and sometimes bizarre restrictions on Gazans during its seven-year reign, including a ban on mohawk hairstyles and baggy pants, and were increasingly resented as the one-time resistance heroes struggled to shine in the spotlight of governmental responsibility. Or that Egypt and Israel cracked down harder on the movement of goods into the tiny territory during the militant group’s rule, driving up fuel and food prices as well as unemployment.
All that is forgotten amid the bursting of rockets.
“Even those, like me, who were all the time criticizing Hamas … now we have to raise up our hats,” says Talal Okal, a political independent who pens a column for the Al-Ayyam newspaper.
Fadwa al-Lolo, a 30-something hair stylist with a villa, fancy car, and three salons, is an unlikely cheerleader for Hamas – especially since she says she is opposed to wars and the death and destruction they bring.
But she applauds the Islamist movement for its unprecedented challenge to Israel’s presence in historic Palestine.
“I feel proud that after 60 years of [Israel] raping our lands we have an army, an army that can hit Israel,” says Ms. al-Lolo, who lives in Gaza City. “None of the Arab armies could do what we have done to Israel.”
While Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein rained 39 Scud missiles on the Tel Aviv area during the 1991 Gulf War, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement showered rockets across northern Israel in 2006, Hamas’s barrage of more than 550 rockets this week has put 5 million of Israel's 8 million citizens at risk.
It’s not that people like al-Wehedi, the taxi driver, are against “resistance,” the shorthand here for violent tactics of undermining Israeli occupation. It’s more that they fault Hamas for lacking a strategy that will promote Palestinian national interests.
“I'm a supporter of resistance, but it must be coordinated with the political leadership in order to get good results,” says an unemployed accountant and father of three. “But starting a war with Israel without an agreement among the Palestinian factions a is a big mistake.”