Tattered green Hamas flags still flap above the streets in central Gaza and posters of its martyrs hang in public spaces. But these are tough times for the Hamas government, and not just due to the recent flare-up in tensions with Israel.
In December last year, they cancelled rallies planned for the 26th anniversary of their founding, an occasion celebrated ever since they seized power here in 2007, and though usually secretive about their financial affairs, they revealed a 2014 budget of $589 million, with a gigantic 75 per cent deficit.
So, what’s gone wrong for Hamas? Just a year ago, it seemed to be enjoying a honeymoon here. It had not only survived the second major Israeli assault in four years, but had the backing of the Arab world’s largest state, Egypt. There was a rift with Iran over the Syrian civil war, but oil-rich Qatar was vying with Turkey over who could best boost the Gazan economy.
In a matter of months, all of this has been swept away. History has taken several unfortunate turns, as far as Hamas is concerned: Qatar’s leadership has changed, with a far less friendly new emir, and Ankara is stalling over Hamas requests to move their political bureau to Turkey. While relations with Iran are on the mend, they are not yet back to their previous warmth (of before the Syrian civil war), and Hamas still supports the rights of their Sunni brethren, the Syrian rebels, to depose Bashar al-Assad.
But the biggest problem for Hamas stems from Egypt’s military takeover last June. Cairo’s current administration makes no secret of its antipathy towards Muslim Brotherhood-allied Hamas and has set to work severing Gaza’s lifeline — the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.
‘They accused us of everything, assassinations, shooting, releasing prisoners, committing great operations everywhere, yallah, they made Hamas like a superpower,’ says Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Ghazi Hamed. ‘They started closing the Rafah crossing and preventing people from travelling — and also they destroy the tunnels.’
The tunnels are vital to Hamas, who tax the smuggling industry; closed tunnels are costing its economy $230 million a month. But luxuries are, as ever, available for those who can afford them, and this makes for a very surreal city. High-end cars driven by the political elite share the streets with the jalopies and donkey carts. The smattering of fancy hotels along Gaza City’s so-called cornice look on to a beach silted with rubbish, but they offer fillet steak and sea bass.
Hamas members have become very fat, says one opposition activist, but ordinary Gazans are suffering as never before. At the food market in Gaza’s Old City, only a scattering of shoppers pick their way through the stalls selling old vegetables, spices and raggedy chickens. ‘No one has money,’ says one stallholder glumly. ‘Every time someone spends even one shekel it is like they are ripping it out of their own flesh.’
Nearby, gold vendors fill an ancient alleyway by the Omari mosque, but the joke here is that whatever jewellery is bought for a wedding gets sold again a week later.
If you want more than the daily allotment of eight hours of electricity, you need a generator in Gaza. This wasn’t so much of a problem when a million litres of smuggled Egyptian fuel arrived through the tunnels every day, costing less than half that supplied via Israel. Since last June, there’s been no Egyptian fuel and Gazans have been growing desperate — even turning on Hamas.
There were attempts by a group calling themselves Tamarod Gaza — modelled on the Egyptian protest movement — to organise mass demonstrations against Hamas on 11 November. But Hamas was all too clear about what would happen to anyone who turned up. It launched its own social media campaign against Tamarod Gaza, warning in one Facebook skit: ‘Come to the demonstration and get your free coffin or wheelchair. Our representatives will be waiting to assist you.’
This was not a joke. Sama Ahmed, a 33-year-old Fatah member, has personal experience of how Hamas treats its opponents. During the March 2011 demonstrations (which demanded Hamas and Fatah repair their political split), she was stabbed by a Hamas security officer. Even now, she says she is occasionally tracked by government agents. She flicks them the V for victory sign: ‘It means I know and don’t care if they follow me,’ she says.
Sama’s attitude is undoubtedly brave, but it also reflects a growing realisation amongst Gazans that Hamas is weak and growing weaker. ‘Nowadays we don’t document many violations,’ says Khalid Abu Shamala, the director of the al-Dameer human rights organisation. This is not because of a new Hamas policy of openness, he emphasises, ‘but because they have little power, and they know it’.
Any domestic strategy has dissolved, he adds. ‘Hamas live day by day, because of the lack of support, the lack of resources and as a result of the international community boycott.’
In the past, Hamas tried to justify the harsh conditions as the price of resistance to the Israeli occupation. It has PRed itself as the only political faction with the infrastructure to launch spectacular attacks and it’s true that in the last major round of hostilities, Hamas missiles reached as far as the Tel Aviv periphery.
But despite the recent skirmish, the ceasefire agreed with Israel in November 2012 has mostly held; last year saw the lowest number of casualties within Gaza since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000.
‘We have an understanding with all Palestinian factions to respect the ceasefire,’ says deputy foreign minister Hamed. ‘The situation here is fragile, there is no stability and from time to time you will find clashes. Israel will come and target people — you will find sometimes a missile fired from Gaza — but in general we are interested in keeping the situation calm and quiet.’ So now Hamas now finds itself in the peculiar position of outsourcing Israel’s security work, and it’s clear that its leaders miss the days of resistance. Hamed almost admits it. ‘Hamas first of all identifies itself as a resistance movement, and our only goal is to liberate our homeland and to end the occupation and to establish our state. Now, to be in power, in authority — it’s not easy.’
Could Hamas succumb to its perilous circumstances and fall? Before we get too excited about that, consider that many in Gaza, even those who detest the current regime, shudder at the thought of what would happen if one of the other armed groups took over. ‘If Islamic Jihad controlled Gaza, Hamas rule would seem like a paradise,’ says one resident.
Then there are the Salafists, with whom Hamas has battled with varying degrees of brutality. They are a growing threat over the border in the Sinai peninsula; and much as Israelis detest Hamas, they dread the prospect of global jihadists penetrating Gaza.
Gazans say they see no political solution and no prospect of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, or of genuine elections any time soon. Hope lies in escape. As one of Gaza’s most successful businessmen says: ‘When they stamp my passport to leave I feel 20 years younger’.