The green flag of Hamas flies everywhere in Gaza these days -- from the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border to Gaza City to the crowded, destitute Jabaliya refugee camp. Signs of support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement are nowhere, save for some old, faded posters of Abbas and Yasser Arafat, left over from the last election campaign.
This is a big change from two years ago -- and a worrisome one. With Israel preparing to withdraw its troops and settlers in August, it suggests that the Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority may no longer command the grass-roots support necessary to fill the power vacuum that seems certain to emerge.
It's not just the flags and wall posters; signs of the Palestinian Authority's weakness in Gaza abound. For one thing, Hamas overwhelmingly outperformed Fatah in local elections earlier this year. And Abbas' popularity is dropping steadily in Palestinian public opinion polls.
On the streets and in the shops, people seem to prefer the security presence of Hamas or Islamic Jihad to the irregularly performing Palestinian Authority police officers who, in part because of their low salaries, are often corrupt. Hamas' private neighborhood watch patrols, in contrast, constitute a seemingly more reliable outfit that metes out tough justice according to its interpretation of Islamic law.
Palestinians in Gaza increasingly look to Hamas, not Fatah, for vital services and, in many cases, jobs, in the albeit limited but expanding realms where the group operates as a government within a government, running health clinics, day care centers, internet cafes. Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Hamas operates a meritocracy, whereas the Palestinian Authority's jobs are given out based on cronyism.
Gazans are also being led into the arms of Hamas by their increasing frustration with (and growing contempt for) Abbas. Palestinians on the street argue that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is about to trade away Gaza in return for permanent ownership of the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- while Abbas looks on helplessly. Abbas counsels his constituents to eschew violence and embrace nonviolence, they say, but with none of the authority or charisma of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. Most Palestinians believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is armed struggle -- the kind provided by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, not the Palestinian Authority -- that is driving the Israelis out of Gaza.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the Palestinian Authority is its failure to improve the daily lives of ordinary people. For example, 12 hours after Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan announced that he had persuaded Israel to keep the Rafah border with Egypt open until 8 p.m., Israel shut the border down altogether. That left hundreds of Palestinians stranded on both sides. Dahlan was left looking like a powerless clerk, subject to Israeli whims.
With parliamentary elections scheduled to take place after Israel's withdrawal, the reality is that the Palestinian Authority has to show substantial progress in the peace process -- and a consequent improvement in day-to-day life -- or risk losing political control of Gaza to Hamas. The U.S. administration has promised much to Abbas and continues to say it is committed to advancing a Palestinian state. But not helping Abbas deliver the basics in Gaza -- food, jobs, security and freedom -- is like handing the vote to Hamas.
After a recent visit to Gaza, I was left with the impression that Palestinians of all stripes still accept the logic of a two-state solution, at least in theory. But at the moment, they see no reason why they should put their support behind the current Palestinian Authority. Hamas -- which remains committed to the destruction of Israel -- gets the benefit of their anger.
Ordinary citizens recounted tales of sorrow and hardship to me. There was an agonized Palestinian teacher in a refugee camp who watches his kindergarten class draw suicide bombers instead of flowers, and a feisty mother of four who is herself one of just 10 obstetricians in Gaza City and who delivers an average of 34 babies a day. As the political squabbling continues between Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, she begged me to ask Americans to help her deliver the one thing she cannot: hope for their future.
Do we care? How the U.S. administration assists Abbas in achieving Palestinian freedom will determine the future of Gaza and even of Middle East peace. The alternative -- however unpalatable it is now -- is spending the next few years adjusting to a Hamas-run Palestinian government.