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Globally Isolated and Economically Crippled: Why Hamas is Losing Gaza

8 minute read
Karl Vick / Gaza City

When the islamist movement known as Hamas first took control of Gaza in 2006, the family of Ahmed Ayyash, a third-year engineering student at the Hamas-controlled Islamic University, gave the party their full backing. Like a solid plurality of Palestinian voters, they thought the Islamists would provide clean government, in contrast to the corruption-riddled Fatah that had ruled for years. Then Ayyash’s mother applied for a teaching job. She was offered it immediately: to the Hamas official who interviewed her, all that mattered was that her husband knew people in the new government. A principled woman, Ayyash’s mother turned down the job because, he says, “it was through wasta.” That’s Arabic for connections, and in Gaza it symbolized everything that was wrong with the old administration, everything Hamas claimed to oppose. “This was their slogan at election time, to end the wasta,” Ayyash recalls.

Ayyash lost faith in the Islamists early, and in the six years since, he’s been joined by many other Gazans who complain that Hamas’ patronage politics favors the few while the majority suffer. “Some homes have four or five family members working, and some have none. That’s not fair,” says Safaa Abu Elaish, 23, an engineer who has been unable to find a job since getting a degree at Islamic University this year. Those who have jobs have other complaints. Ansaf-Bash Bash, 66, a receptionist at the same university, says she’s spent eight years on the waiting list for a government-sponsored pilgrimage flight to Mecca. “Some people go almost every year,” she says. “If you know someone strong, they forward your name.”

(See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.)

Such complaints, damaging to any political party, are potentially fatal to the Islamists. Besieged by Israel and the West, which regards it as a terrorist group, and cut off from the Palestinian majority in the West Bank, Hamas has little to offer beyond its jihadist credentials — and the promise of clean government. So it’s hardly surprising that the party has been rapidly losing ground in its stronghold. Recent surveys by leading pollsters conclude that if elections were held in Gaza today, Hamas, an acronym in Arabic for the Islamic Resistance Movement, would not be returned to power. A June poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that Hamas would get just 28% of the vote, a steep decline from the 44% plurality it won in 2006.

Especially alarming for the Islamists is a precipitous drop in support for the party among Gaza’s youth: two-thirds of the population is under 25. In a March survey taken in the afterglow of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that led to the ouster of Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, more than 60% of Gazans age 18 to 27 said they too would support public demonstrations demanding regime change.

Soon after that poll, 10,000 turned out at a rally to voice a more modest demand — that Hamas end the bloody rift with Fatah, the secular party it bested six years ago. Hamas sent thugs to break up the demonstration. “We came out to say the people should be united, and they attack us!” says Shadi Hassan, 22, who lives in a refugee camp and sells cigarettes. “We are suffocated, and we need regime change.”

(See a TIME photoessay on Hamas Recruitment Day.)

The rally was not in vain: Hamas and Fatah promptly announced they were reconciling. Their pact promises new elections by next May, but the Islamists may not be looking forward to the vote. Hamas will need something dramatic to regain the Gaza street. It may get a short-term boost from its surprise deal to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held hostage since the summer of 2006, in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. But the euphoria over the release is unlikely to alleviate the bread-and-butter problems for which many Gazans blame the party.

See TIME’s video: “Palestinian Fatah Fighters Rehabilitate in Israel.”

See TIME’s video “Israel’s Lonesome Doves”

Unfit to Govern
How did Hamas lose Gazan hearts and minds? Not the way you might think. Few Gazans blame Hamas for the most damaging events that have happened on its watch: the siege, the trade embargo, the three-week Israeli military assault in late 2008 and early 2009 that killed 1,400 residents and left tens of thousands homeless. Israel’s efforts to drive a wedge between Hamas and its supporters have consistently failed: Gazans reliably side with Hamas over Israel.

But they are less forgiving of Hamas for Gaza’s international isolation, the pariah status the Islamists defiantly embraced when the West withdrew aid because of Hamas’ terrorist activities. In an enclave so difficult to leave, the isolation “makes you feel that you’re a less-deserving human,” one young blogger says.

(Read: “As Palestinians Push for Statehood, Israel Finds Itself Isolated.”)

For most of its existence, Hamas didn’t have to deal with the outside world. The party’s roots were in charity, dispensing food and medicine to Gaza’s poor in the 1970s. Israel encouraged the group, viewing it as a counterweight to Fatah, then a militant party led by Yasser Arafat. By the late 1980s, however, Hamas had passed its infamous charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and had begun guerrilla operations against the Jewish state. Its signature tactic was suicide bombing, which it used repeatedly to derail attempts to resolve the conflict by any means except violence. And yet when elections were held in 2006, Hamas decided to get on the ballot.

The party’s unexpected victory put cadres of solemn, bearded men with little political or administrative experience in charge of running a government. Proceeding by trial and error, they got high marks for making the streets safe and ending a period of carjackings, kidnappings and general insecurity. But they never came to grips with the Gazan economy, which lies in ruins, and they’ve failed to live up to their promise of wasta-free government.

Even party stalwarts agree that they’ve lost the street. “The majority of people want a change, yes,” says Ahmed Yusuf, a former deputy foreign minister for Hamas who now runs a think tank called House of Wisdom. “They are not happy with the way Hamas is governing Gaza. Wherever you look is miserable life.” Forty percent of Gazans live in poverty. The rate of unemployment is approaching 50%, among the highest in the world, and is likely to worsen as the population of 1.6 million doubles in the next 20 years. “Because they believe in God, they don’t think a lot about the future,” says Gaza economist Omar Shaban, who heads the Pal-Think think tank. “You won’t find someone in Hamas who is thinking about 2045. They say, ‘Oh, God will provide.'”

Or Iran will. Gaza relies so heavily on handouts from sympathetic outsiders, including Iran and Syria, that a recent tax hike was attributed to an interruption of the monthly stipend the government is said to get from Tehran. No one knows for sure: the Hamas government doesn’t publish a budget.

Hamas did itself no favors with its response to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. in September. The effort was led by Palestinian Authority President — and Fatah chief — Mahmoud Abbas. Irked that it was not consulted beforehand, Hamas banned demonstrations supporting it, casting itself as one more hurdle, along with the U.S. and Israel, to statehood. Indeed, the timing of the Shalit deal gave the appearance of an Islamist movement scrambling to take back the spotlight.

(See who gains, who loses in the Israel-Hamas prisoner swap to free Gilad Shalit.)

If any of this worries Tahir al-Nounou, he doesn’t show it. The official Hamas spokesman has a preternaturally jolly demeanor and a ready reply for every criticism. The Arab Spring, he claims, stands to benefit Islamist movements, not least Hamas’ parent, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As for opinion polls, he points out that those in 2005 also predicted that Hamas would lose. He notes that a record number of young Gazans memorized the Koran this year, calling it evidence of the party’s strength in that key demographic. And the reports of a financial crisis are simply wrong, al-Nounou says. All Hamas needs to do, he says, is adjust its priorities. Last year, every family in Gaza got a box of sweets to mark the Muslim holidays. “Now instead of giving sweets, we can pave the streets.” Another promise likely to turn sour.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 24, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.

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