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Hamas' rule in Gaza becoming irreversible

The Islamic militant group has skirted the blockade, improved life for residents -- and erased prospects for Palestinian unity.

October 19, 2008|Karin Laub | Associated Press

GAZA CITY — Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip is now virtually complete.

Since the summer, the Islamic militants have silenced and disarmed their remaining opponents, filled the bureaucracy with their supporters, and kept Gaza's economy afloat, even if just barely, despite a 16-month-old international embargo and border blockades by Israel and Egypt.

With nothing in sight to weaken Hamas' grip, the political split between Gaza and the West Bank -- the two territories meant to make up a future Palestinian state -- looks increasingly irreversible.

That conclusion was also reached by the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, in a September report describing Hamas' ascendancy, and the split is one of the main obstacles to U.S. efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

It weakens moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the negotiations because he isn't seen as speaking for Gaza. Israel, Abbas and the international community don't want a deal that leaves out the 140-square-mile coastal territory and its 1.4 million Palestinians. And it's unlikely Israel would give up the West Bank as long as Hamas is in charge of Gaza. Undisputed rule has also emboldened Hamas ahead of power-sharing talks with Abbas' Fatah movement in Cairo later this month. The militants are showing no sign of willingness to let Fatah back into Gaza.

Instead, the failure of these talks could set the stage for a new round in the Palestinian power struggle.

Compounding Abbas' troubles is a dispute with Hamas over whether Palestinian law allows him to remain in office after Jan. 8, when Hamas says his term officially ends. Abbas, relying on an amendment that was never fully ratified, claims he can stay on another year. Hamas, citing Palestinian law, is set to appoint its own man, Ahmad Bahar, the deputy speaker of the Hamas-led parliament in Gaza, as president in January.

Abbas would be hard put to portray the Islamists as usurpers of power when his own legal status is in question.

"Starting in January, no one is legitimate," said analyst Ghassan Khatib, a former Cabinet minister in the West Bank. "And when everyone is equal in being illegitimate, the advantaged party is the one that has the strength on the ground."

That party is Hamas, which defeated thousands of fighters loyal to Abbas in a five-day blitz in June 2007.

"We believe that Hamas is going ahead with its plan to sever Gaza from the West Bank and to build its own regime," said former Deputy Prime Minister Azzam Ahmed of Fatah. "We believe they are succeeding."

One reason they are succeeding is the situation on the ground. Gaza City's streets are cleaner and safer than before the takeover. Despite budget shortages, Hamas has fixed traffic lights, paved some streets and opened a new children's hospital, and claims to have imposed law and order after the chaos that often dogged Fatah rule.

It has also been careful not to push an overtly Islamic social agenda. For example, officials have suggested to female reporters covering Gaza's parliament that they wear head scarves, but those who don't are not shunned.

Still, one-party rule has made dissenters reluctant to speak openly, especially after hundreds of Fatah activists were rounded up over the summer.

Hamas now controls every aspect of daily life, from screening visitors at a new border checkpoint to running what the International Crisis Group described as a network of paid and volunteer informers.

Hamas has seized opportunities to neutralize opponents.

A July bombing blamed on Fatah gave Hamas a pretext for shutting dozens of offices of Fatah and related associations. Hamas policemen guard the now empty former Fatah headquarters.

"Everything has been taken over and there is nothing left for Fatah in the Gaza Strip," said Hazem abu Shanab, a Fatah spokesman who spent nearly two months in Hamas custody after the July blast.

The bombing also provided the grounds to go after one of Hamas' last armed rivals, the Fatah-allied Hillis clan. In August, Hamas defeated Hillis fighters in a clash, sending dozens into exile and arresting others.

Ahmed Hillis, 24, a mechanic, said he was ridiculed in Hamas custody. "They told us we were defeated," said Hillis, adding that he believes Hamas is now too powerful to be fought.

Strikes by teachers and health workers, called by West Bank union leaders in August in an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, have backfired. Hamas fired thousands of the teachers, replacing them with university graduates, and forced most doctors back to work.

Not all the new teachers are necessarily Hamas loyalists, but even those without political ties feel increasingly indebted to the Islamists.

"I am not a Hamas member, but I think they have done many good things since they took over," said Abu Khaled, 35, a newly hired math teacher.

Economically, Hamas is surviving.

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