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Which Way for Hamas?


Amid the wreckage of Gaza, Hamas’s officials struggle to sound upbeat. The burly interior minister, Fathi Hamad, whose predecessor was killed by an Israeli bomb, defiantly shuns security precautions at his makeshift office in Gaza City’s main police station. “Claims that we are trying to establish an Islamic state are false,” says the minister, who says his preference would be pursuing a degree in media studies. “Hamas is not the Taliban. It is not al-Qaeda. It is an enlightened, moderate Islamic movement.”

Such talk is not the only effort to return to normality. Parasols and beach cabins sprouted this summer along Gaza’s twenty-eight miles of sandy shore, the crowded strip’s principal public park. Two buildings of the Islamic University, Hamas’s most prominent educational institution, had been bombed but the university put on a graduation ceremony with festive lights, a cascade of multicolored balloons, and heart-shaped posters wishing future success to its students, most of whom happen to be women and some of whom flashed jeans and high heels beneath their black gowns. In a theater next to the Palestinian parliament, also shattered by bombs, actresses danced and writhed in the government-sponsored premiere of Gaza’s Girls and the Patience of Job.

Such events reflect one side of the ongoing conflict inside Hamas between the pragmatists who put Gazans’ needs first, and have sought to lighten their lives after years of punishing blockade and intermittent war, and the ideologues who give priority to “the rule of the sharia of God on earth.” Advocates of the latter have tried to apply Islamic law in full, appealing to the Gaza-based and Hamas-controlled Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to replace the British Mandate–era penal code with a sharia law that provides execution for apostasy, stoning and lashing for adultery, and the payment of blood money counted in camels. So far, the pragmatists have largely frustrated their efforts. “You can’t Islamize the law when the political system is not fully Islamic,” says the PLC’s general director, Nafiz al-Madhoun, who completed a doctorate in law at the University of Minnesota, and once lectured there. “You need to have an Islamic government, judiciary, and political system. And we don’t.”

In response, the ideologues have resorted to other means, introducing sharia by the back door. With the help of Hamas mosques, the Religious Endowments Ministry has commissioned a morality police to “Propagate Virtue and Prevent Vice,” not least by patrolling the beaches for such signs of debauchery as unveiled female bathers and shirtless men. The police have set up arbitration committees in their stations, offering detainees a fast-track resolution by fatwas, or legal opinion, which sometimes comes from the Muslim Scholars League. “The law of God or the law of a judge?” the police have asked petitioners. The Education Ministry insists it has issued no requirement that schoolgirls wear the jilbab, the shapeless body-wrap, but at the start of the school year, some principals did.

The Islamic Resistance Movement (in Arabic, Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya—hence Hamas) remains powerful, but nearly four years after winning the 2006 elections, and two years after its gunmen overpowered Palestinian Authority (PA) forces to seize control of the strip, Hamas no longer acts like an opposition suddenly thrust into power. Silent a year ago, the Ministry of National Economy now negotiates with entrepreneurs seeking licenses for their latest project. The ministry’s small-business scheme offers interest-free loans for such things as a $5,000 freezer to put a butcher back in business. The Local Affairs Ministry runs a licensing office for the tunnels to Egypt that remain Gaza’s lifeline; the Public Works Ministry is repaving roads with smuggled tar; the Foreign Ministry has commissioned an American journalist to train diplomats; and the Finance Ministry is collecting taxes with increased rigor. A comprehensive Web site (www.diwan.ps) gives details of government appointments and decrees, with greater transparency than the PA, Hamas’s counterpart in Ramallah that once ran both parts of the Palestinians’ territory, but now runs the West Bank alone, and that under an Israeli thumb.

Hamas has revamped the civil service, pruning departments that under the bloated PA had more undersecretaries than clerical secretaries. Initial protests by Fatah loyalists after Hamas’s takeover in June 2007 gave Gaza’s new masters an excuse to lower pay grades and shed jobs. “It was a gift from God. Most were already redundant,” according to an Interior Ministry official who says he has cut his twelve-member staff (including nine directors-general) by a third. With government salaries paid promptly, most of the time, Gazans make use of strike-free municipal services, including buses and schools. Should Gaza again have a functioning railway, Hamas would run trains on time.

International attempts to isolate Hamas have also helped instead to entrench the Islamists. With all but the most basic goods banned from Gaza, smuggling has thrived through supply lines that Hamas controls. Since 2006, despite Israeli bombing and increasingly effective Egyptian policing, the number of tunnels has grown from a few score to over a thousand. “The siege has empowered those the international community wanted to disempower,” a Gazan businessman observed.

Of the nearly 30,000 people the authorities say have received jobs since the party took power, some 25,000 are in the security forces. “You can dial 100 and the police come,” a banker said. “Under the PA, police were afraid of thieves, now the thieves are afraid of them.” Before the Hamas takeover, says another, he and his friends chose their most battered car when they went to a restaurant, for fear of car thefts. This summer, the jammed streets were full of new cars, a tacit rebuke to Israel’s two-year ban on vehicle imports.

The internal calm is matched by an external reprieve. When Israel withdrew in January, leaving 1,387 Gazans dead (according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem), thousands homeless, and factories, schools, and infrastructure smashed, Hamas hailed its survival as a great victory. But Israel imposed its own terms, forcing Hamas to quietly drop demands that Israel lift the blockade before Hamas stopped lobbing rockets at the Jewish state. While the range of Hamas’s rockets has increased from fifteen to forty kilometers, bringing Tel Aviv suburbs within reach, Hamas has, since the end of the Israeli incursion, fired rockets rarely if ever, and restrained Islamist rivals, such as Islamic Jihad, from doing the same. Between March 17 and September 22 Gazans fired some eighteen short-range rockets without loss of life. Israel has responded with incursions and sometimes fatal bombings. In effect, Hamas now acts as Israel’s border guard, preventing further attacks. Israel’s swap of twenty female Palestinian prisoners for the first video footage of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier Hamas captured three years ago, has raised guarded hopes in Gaza of a bigger deal to come. In exchange for Shalit, according to Hamas leaders, Israel will soon release hundreds of Israel’s ten thousand Palestinian prisoners and might even relax the siege.

To the south too, Hamas hints of better times ahead. Whereas in 2008 Hamas brashly punched a hole through Egypt’s border defenses, unleashing an embarrassing stampede of Palestinians into Egyptian shops, Interior Minister Hamad says Hamas now “coordinates fully” with Gaza’s sole Arab neighbor. Hamas even poses as a guardian of Egypt’s national security, not least by killing al-Qaeda’s self-proclaimed preachers and other adherents in Gaza. “Our task now is governance, to consolidate stability rather than continue resistance,” says Hamad.

Yet a day after speaking these soothing words, the interior minister offered a very different political horizon. Between towering bodyguards from Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, he delivered an apocalyptic address to a summoned assembly of clan elders. It was angels that chased Israel’s army from Gaza in last winter’s war, he thundered, adding with a numerological flourish that whereas Israel beat twenty-two Arab nations, Gaza’s Islamic resistance had routed the enemy in just twenty-two days. The Jewish state, he concluded, would disappear in 2022.

Such reverses in rhetoric reveal a movement struggling to reconcile two competing audiences: the “international community,” which calls for Hamas to be more moderate, and a core constituency that grows suspicious at any sign it might be selling out. Much as Communist regimes tacked “Democratic” to their names to disguise totalitarianism, Hamas officials use the word “resistance” to hide the waning of their armed struggle. The culture minister, when he attends theatrical productions, speaks of Resistance Culture. The minister of economy hails recent openings of cafés and restaurants as triumphs of the Resistance Economy. “As long as we don’t raise our hands in surrender and continue to struggle, that’s resistance,” he said.

Hamas has failed to achieve the prime requisite for a more normal life: ending the siege. Gaza under Islamist rule is a cul-de-sac. Air and sea routes are blocked. Only the very sick, wounded, or well connected are allowed passage through sporadically opened land crossings to Israel and Egypt. Few now even bother to attempt the humiliating process of crossing the border, either with Israel or Egypt. “You can’t board an Egypt Air plane to get home via Cairo without a fax from Egyptian intelligence,” a Gazan graduate of Harvard Business School said.

While some Gazans profit from the boom in contraband, most people have seen their savings, salaries, and businesses atrophy. For all the talk about entrepreneurs, nine tenths now live below the poverty line, according to the UN, which estimates that living standards have plummeted to pre-1967 levels. In Israel per capita GDP is $27,450; in Gaza it’s two or three dollars a day. Even merchant families collect UN rations.

If war and siege have not crippled Hamas, Gaza’s misery appears to have prompted its greater willingness to compromise and offer its people a political future. Hamas leaders, including the more outspoken exiled leadership based in Damascus, have lately muted criticism of Fatah in the interest of intra-Palestinian reconciliation—even after Abbas’s Palestinian Authority reportedly bowed to Israeli pressure and withdrew its demand for UN action against Israel following Justice Richard Goldstone’s UN report into war crimes by the belligerents in Gaza’s winter war. They have played down the significance of their party’s fiery founding charter, which rejects any recognition of Israel, hinting that they could live with a two-state settlement. In its draft laws, Hamas defines “Palestine” not as the area including Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza but as the geographical district over which the Palestinian National Authority rules. As leaders of Fatah did a generation earlier, some members have discreetly met with Israelis at international conferences, talking peace over breakfast. In addition, within its own fiefdom Hamas’s leaders have decided to suspend declaration of an Islamist state and application of sharia, and to focus on the economy instead.

Such changes in position are offensive to Hamas’s hard-core followers. For what have they struggled, if not for establishing God’s kingdom on earth? Rumors in Gaza reinforce the image of a leadership straying from the straight path. Businessmen working with Hamas are said to be investing tunnel profits in renovating plush hotels, prompting some to speak of an emerging Hamas oligarchy. A minister’s son reportedly deals in drugs, and the son of a Qassam commander smokes water pipes. The security forces, too, seem to be following the pattern of the region’s self-serving police states. Hamas used to threaten external foes and defend its own people, say Gaza’s whisperers. Now it does just the reverse.

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