GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, (AP) – 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 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 Gaza Strip’s and its 1.4 million Palestinians. And it’s unlikely Israel would give up the West Bank as long as Hamas is in charge in Gaza.
Undisputed rule has also improved Hamas’ leverage ahead of power-sharing talks with Abbas’ Fatah movement in Cairo later this month.
Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas leader, said his movement is eager to reconcile with Abbas. “If there is no pressure from the United States and Israel (on Abbas), we can build a good national unity government,” Yousef said.
However, in previous negotiations, the militants showed little willingness to give up any of their power and are unlikely to do so now.
Instead, the failure of this round of 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, Deputy Parliament Speaker Ahmed Bahar, 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 forces 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 talk 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 Hilles clan. In August, Hamas defeated Hilles fighters in a clash, sending dozens into exile and arresting others.
Ahmed Hilles, 24, a mechanic, said he was ridiculed in Hamas custody. “They told us we were defeated,” said Hilles, adding that he believes Hamas is now too powerful to fight.
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.
International sanctions can’t block the inflow of money from Iran and donations from Muslims worldwide. At the same time, Abbas, Israel and the international community don’t want to push Gaza over the brink by fully enforcing the embargo.
“The embargo is working, but not to the extent that we want it to work, and not to the extent that everybody is keeping up the pressure on Hamas,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron.
Abbas, for example, continues to pay the salaries of some 70,000 civil servants in Gaza, in exchange for staying loyal and refusing to work for the Hamas government. Such loyalty, and with that Abbas’ main link to Gaza, would likely disappear if the money stopped coming.
Yet the salaries help prop up Gaza’s economy, and thus Hamas rule.
In addition, Hamas has about 20,000 people on its payroll, and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh last month cited a monthly operating budget of $20 million. The money is scraped together by smuggling cash, laundering money and stepping up tax collection. There’s even enough left over for occasional unemployment payments.
Gazans are also feeling safer these days because of a cease-fire that has stopped Israel’s attacks on wanted militants in Gaza and salvoes of Palestinian rockets on Israeli border towns. Israel agreed to the truce in June despite concerns that Hamas would use it to bring in more weapons, and has eased the blockade, allowing in more trucks carrying food and humanitarian supplies.
Life is also made more bearable by the unhindered influx of goods, from weapons to food and medicines, through dozens of Hamas-supervised smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
For example, the underground trade has brought down the price of a pack of Marlboro cigarettes to $3, down from $8.30 a year ago.
Politically, through, the future looks gloomy, the International Crisis Group said.
“Reversing the drift toward greater Palestinian separation, both political and geographic, will be a difficult and, at this point, almost hopeless task,” said the think tank, which specializes in areas of conflict and has been monitoring the rise of Hamas in Gaza.
“In Gaza, new realities are taking hold,” it added. “Prospects for reconciliation, reunification and a credible peace process seem as distant and illusory as ever.”