Kim Sengupta

In Gaza, the siege mentality is helping Hamas

As long as Gaza feels ignored, isolated and abandoned, Hamas will continue to draw support

In Gaza, the siege mentality is helping Hamas
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The main entrance to Al-Shifa Hospital was crowded with what seemed to be journalists. This wasn’t unusual. They wait here most days for ambulances ferrying in the dead and wounded from Israeli air strikes; but this time there seemed to be more of them. Getting nearer, I saw that what I had taken to be microphones in their hands were in fact slippers. These weren’t hacks, they were angry Gazans, come to fling shoes (the ultimate insult in the Middle East) at Jawad Awad, the minister of health of the Palestinian Authority, paying a visit from Ramallah.

This was an important day in the current round of bloodletting between Israel and Hamas. The Egyptian government had proposed a ceasefire (this, the first real international effort to end the conflict, fell apart after six hours) but the crowd was far less interested in peace than in expressing their rage. In their eyes, the government has done almost nothing while they faced the Israeli military onslaught and suffered from the Israeli and Egyptian blockades.

Did they think the minister had come over to persuade them to sign the Egyptian deal? I asked one man, Mohammed Fayez. He said: ‘I doubt if he even knows anything about that, he has been enjoying himself in New York. We have had so many martyrs, so many injured, and this is the first time he has bothered to turn up.’ Fayez was not a Hamas supporter, he insisted, but had begun to loathe Fatah: ‘Other Arabs have also betrayed us, but this man is actually a Palestinian, Fatah are Palestinians.’ Others around him nodded agreement.

Palestinians inspect a house destroyed in air attacks Photo: Getty
Internecine strife is nothing new in Gaza. I remember, during the last Israeli mission in 2012, the execution of half a dozen ‘collaborators’ whose bodies were then dragged through the streets, roped to motorbikes. But this feeling of being forgotten, even by their own politicians, permeates Gaza to an extent I have not seen here in recent times.

In 2012, when Israel launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, a delegation of Arab League foreign ministers rushed to Gaza to visit the wounded at Shifa, and their Turkish counterpart insisted on joining them. This time around, there was only the hapless Mr Awad, belatedly.

‘You won’t be seeing the Arab League or any other ministers here this time. You’ll hear some talk, but nothing much else,’ said Dr Ashraf al-Qadri, one of the directors at Shifa. ‘Supplies are being held up in Ramallah — we are looking beyond Ramallah for international help, but so far we have only got promises. Half the ambulances can’t run due to lack of fuel, because the Egyptians have blocked supplies through Rafah. We didn’t have this problem in 2012, because the Egyptians increased the supply at the time.’

Palestinian relatives mourn the death of a 20-year-old Hamas militant who was killed minutes before a five-hour truce went into effect Photo: AFP/Getty
Having to stand together against an uncaring world makes one stronger, I have heard Israelis say. In Gaza, this same siege mentality is helping Hamas, at least for the time being. Its governance, or lack of it, had lost popularity. Now, though, they lead the resistance — and people do not want to speak against the resistance.

Some are afraid of Hamas, but there are many others who are genuinely proud that the Palestinians are once again fighting back. The hundreds of rockets fired over the border may not have caused much damage, but the fact that their powerful enemy is panicking is a point of pride.

The majority of people I spoke to here are against the Egyptian plan for an unconditional ceasefire, as is Hamas. This does not mean that ordinary Gazans follow Hamas’s lead; it is a reflection of the lack of faith they have in the international community to ensure delivery of the terms agreed in a peace deal. What is the point of 200 ‘martyrs’ sacrificing their lives, they ask, if nothing is gained in return? And while many do not view Hamas as a capable administrator, they believe that as a military organisation it will be best able to counter any land offensives that Israel may launch, alongside Islamic Jihad.

There are some who want to call a halt to the rocket attacks so that talks can begin. ‘Where do we get to — 200, 400 or 500 martyrs? Are we going to go to more and more funerals?’ asked Bushra, a young woman of 24 whose family home was bombed in 2012. But she is in a minority. I am writing this after a night of constant bombing which has continued into the morning, and Bushra is right that there will be more casualties. But as long as Gaza feels ignored, isolated and abandoned, Hamas will be able to continue to draw support for the fight — even if it is one they have engineered.

Kim Sengupta is the defence and diplomatic correspondent of the Independent.