[Marxism] NYT: A Year Reshapes Hamas and Gaza

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sun Jun 15 06:53:39 MDT 2008

(“Israel is trying to pressure us to make us forget that the real
problem is the occupation,” she said. “Hamas was elected like any
government and never given the chance to govern. Life is hard here
but it has never exactly been perfect. We can take it. The Koran
teaches that in the end we will be victorious.”

(COMMENT: Israel backed the Islamic forces against the secular PLO 
led by Yassir Arafat, in order to divide and to --it hoped-- conquer 
the Palestinian people. This provides rather eloquent reminder of the 
Admonition's validity: "Beware of what you wish for, you might get it."

June 15, 2008
A Year Reshapes Hamas and Gaza

GAZA — Cursing God in public here — a fairly common event in this
benighted and besieged strip of Palestinian land — can now lead to
prison. So can kissing in public. A judge ruled last week that a bank
could not collect its contracted interest on a 10-year-old loan
because Islam forbids charging interest.

One year ago, gunmen from Hamas, an Islamist anti-Israel group, took
over Gaza, shooting some of their more secular Fatah rivals in the
knees and tossing one off a building. Israel and the West imposed a
blockade, hoping to squeeze the new rulers from power. Yet today
Hamas has spread its authority across all aspects of life, including
the judiciary. It is fully in charge. Gazans have not, as Israel and
the United States hoped, risen up against it.

“The Palestinian criminal code says there should be no improper
behavior in the streets,” the new chief justice, Abed al-Raouf
Halabi, explained in an interview, pulling the code book from his
breast pocket.

“It is up to judges to interpret what that means,” he said. “For us
that means no cursing, no drinking and no kissing in public. In the
past these things were ignored.”

Gaza has always been poor and pious, distinct from the more secular
and better off West Bank. But a year of Hamas rule has made it more
so. The notion of Gaza as an enduringly separate entity is
solidifying, making it less likely that Palestinians might agree even
among themselves on peace with Israel.

Compared with a year ago here in Gaza, more women are covered, more
men are bearded, Internet sites are filtered and non-Hamas public
gatherings are largely banned. With the Israeli closure greatly
reducing the supply of fuel, spare parts and other vital goods, less
sewage is treated and more fish are contaminated. Gazans feel trapped
and helpless.

But assessing exactly how bad it is — how angry or loyal people feel,
how effective or cruel the closure has been, how truly impoverished
Gaza has become — is a delicate and politically fraught activity as
three recent days of reporting here and dozens of interviews showed.

Those who reject Israel’s policy as evidence of its ill will make it
sound like Gaza has turned into Somalia. It has not. At the same
time, those who consider it their role to defend Israel in all it
does make it sound as if the 70 truckloads of goods that Israel
permits in daily have prevented any real suffering. They have not.

Even more politically complicated is the question of how the closure
has affected Hamas’s authority and popularity. Many in the West and
Israel would very much like to believe Hamas is in trouble. And it is
easy to find people here who hate the government and its black-clad
police, even among some who voted for Hamas in the January 2006
elections that gave it a majority in the Palestinian legislature and
led to 18 months of tense power sharing before the takeover.

But those in Israel who watch most closely — Arabic speaking security
officials — say that while the closure is pressing Hamas, it is not
jeopardizing it.

“Gaza is totally under Hamas’s control,” said one of three such major
officials, all of whom agreed to speak only if identified in this
vague manner, and all of whose assessments were the same.

“What happened in Gaza a year ago was not really a coup,” a second
official said. “Hamas’s takeover was a kind of natural process. Hamas
was so strong, so deeply rooted in Palestinian society through its
activities in the economy, education, culture and health care, and
Fatah was so weak, so corrupt, that the takeover was like wind
blowing over a moth-infested structure.”

For months before the takeover, life in Gaza, with its 1.5 million
inhabitants, was deeply insecure as Fatah and Hamas gunmen fought for
control of the streets and institutions. Hamas had a parliamentary
majority but Fatah, through the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, still
officially controlled the security apparatuses and ministries.

Now, even many of those who detest Hamas say that security has
returned to daily life as a result of its takeover.

“Hamas is strong and brutal but very good at governing,” observed
Eyad Serraj, a British-trained psychiatrist who runs a group of
mental health clinics and is a secular opponent of Hamas. “They are
handing out coupons for gas. They have gotten people to pay for car
registration. They are getting people to pay their electricity bills
after years of everyone refusing to. The city and the hospitals are
cleaner than in many years.”

While the West Bank-based government of President Abbas bars its
nearly 80,000 employees from showing up at work in Gaza to protest
the takeover, it continues to pay their salaries here. With no work
and a steady wage, there is a once-a-month rush on the A.T.M.’s and a
fair amount of disposable income spent in handsome coffee shops
surrounded by Poinciana trees now in bloom. New restaurants have
opened recently to take advantage of this phenomenon.

The relative scarcity of goods makes it both harder and easier for
Hamas to maintain control. It is harder because the basic role of
government, to provide for its people, is a challenge. It is easier,
however, because what little comes through is inevitably channeled
through Hamas, which collects a tax on it.

Many of the goods in Gaza now come through smuggler tunnels from the
Egyptian Sinai. There are scores of such tunnels and while the
Israeli and American authorities have complained that the tunnels
provide a pathway for arms, their more central role is for computers,
cigarettes, gasoline and clothing. Hamas taxes everything that comes

At a Gaza City clothing store for women and girls, the owner, Wael,
31, who considered it unsafe to give his last name, said that while
he used to get his goods from Israel and Turkey, now everything in
his shop comes from Egypt in flour sacks smuggled in the tunnels. The
markup on a bundle of $5,000 worth of goods is $3,000, he said, some
of it for the smuggler, some of it for taxes to Hamas.

“Everything that has happened here has been a terrible mistake,” he
says of the election victory and subsequent takeover. “It is a
mistake for Islamists to get into power. But what can we do? Hamas is
even stronger than a year ago. They can take me and put me away
whenever they want.”

That is apparently what happened to Mohamed Zughbur, a Fatah
supporter who was taken from his home two months ago by Hamas forces,
imprisoned and tortured and accused of collaboration with Israel,
according to Moustafa Ibrahim, a researcher for the Palestinian
Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights.

He said that when his organization complained to the Hamas
authorities, they pointed to the United States and the Guantánamo Bay
prison; a collaborator, they said, can not be treated with kid
gloves. He and other advocates say that Gaza was not exactly a model
of individual liberty when Fatah was in power, but the changes of the
past year are real and likely to get worse.

While few dispute that Hamas has changed Gaza, a more complicated
question is whether ruling Gaza has changed Hamas. Many in the
movement and even outside it say that it is less ideological than it
was at its founding or even a year ago.

Whereas Hamas says it will never recognize Israel, its leaders say
that if Israel returned to the 1967 borders, granted a Palestinian
state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem and dealt with the
rights of refugees, Hamas would declare a long-term truce. This is
not that different from what the rest of the Arab world says or the
Fatah position in peace talks with Israel.

Jawad Tibi, a health minister under the Fatah government and a Fatah
advocate in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis, is angry at Hamas.
Still, he said, “Hamas is talking about a 30-year truce which is no
different really from what we want. Hamas is Fatah with beards.”

Sayed Abu Musameh is one of the founders of Hamas and now a member of
the legislature. One of the old guard moderates, he is also on the
board of Hamas’s first research organization just opening here. It is
called Beit al Hikma, the House of Wisdom, and seeks to build bridges
with the West.

“We are not seeking all of Palestine, only the ’67 borders,” he said.
“Then there would be a truce for a very long period to pave the way
for the next generation to resolve the issues we are paralyzed to

He added that Hamas’s rocket attacks on southern Israeli communities
are a mistake and that the group’s links to Iran are out of
necessity, not desire. He said that while the top Hamas leadership
did not agree on these last two points, he was not the only advocate
to believe them and more would do so if there were encouragement.

Americans who have visited the top Hamas leader in Syria, Khaled
Meshal, including former President Jimmy Carter and Henry Siegman of
the U.S./Middle East Project, say a real change is under way,
especially regarding the group’s willingness to live next to Israel.
So far, few American or Israeli officials have taken their assertion

Indeed, Israel’s security officials who seem realistic about Hamas’s
control in Gaza dismiss the idea that Hamas has changed in any
fundamental way worth Israel’s time. They see the talk of a truce as
tactical, not strategic, especially given the toxic words of its
leaders and media and the continuing rocket and mortar attacks on

As a result, Gaza seems set to continue as is for some time —
isolated, polluted, unhappy, days filled with waiting on line for
provisions, but not explosive.

Noha Abu Ramadan, an office manager, typifies Hamas’s supporters.
Covered in Muslim modesty, she efficiently works a telephone, fax
machine and cellphone while greeting a pair of visitors.

“Isn’t it nice to have such light traffic?” she joked about the lack
of fuel. “It keeps the accident rate down.” Asked her view on how
things were going, she grew more serious.

“Israel is trying to pressure us to make us forget that the real
problem is the occupation,” she said. “Hamas was elected like any
government and never given the chance to govern. Life is hard here
but it has never exactly been perfect. We can take it. The Koran
teaches that in the end we will be victorious.”

Taghreed el-Khodary contributed reporting.

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