Hamas, claiming victory over Israel, stuck in same old cycle

GAZA CITY – At a beachfront hotel in Gaza City this fall, hundreds of civic leaders in Gaza gathered in a Hamas-sponsored conference to ...


GAZA CITY – At a beachfront hotel in Gaza City this fall, hundreds of civic leaders in Gaza gathered in a Hamas-sponsored conference to hear allegations of an imminent Hamas victory over Israel.

“The State of Israel will be history,” conference director Kanaan Abed said in a speech broadcast through the gang. “Palestinians outside Palestine: prepare your papers. You will return to Palestine after liberation.

The reality, however, was almost the opposite.

Seven months after the launch of Hamas an 11 day war with Israel, the stalemate between Israel and the Islamist movement has returned to roughly what it was before the fighting began.

Israeli strikes in May killed at least 130 civilians and up to 100 militants, and destroyed or damaged more than 1,000 homes, shops and offices in Gaza. Rockets by Hamas and its allies killed 13 people in Israel and, accidentally, at least 15 Palestinians in Gaza.

But otherwise, little has changed. The Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza for 14 years is intact. The Palestinian leadership remains divided between Gaza and the West Bank. The prospect of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, moribund since 2014, is further away than ever.

Even Hamas’s unmistakable gain – an increase in popularity among Palestinians, browned by the outbreak of war in the first place – has dissipated, its poll count plummeted to almost at the same level they were ahead this year.

His mantle as the leader of the armed resistance against Israel has been tarnished by growing criticism of his governance of Gaza and concerns about corruption and rampant unemployment. And although the group publicly declares that it defeated Israel in the May fighting, it is privately pushing for piecemeal economic concessions from Israel and has yet to secure a reconstruction deal to fix the problems. war damage.

“Everything here is frozen, you can say – cloudy, foggy,” said Ghazi Hamad, a member of the group’s political council in Gaza, in a recent interview. “We don’t know in which direction we are going. “

Hamas has been here several times.

His previous wars with Israel – in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014 – each ended with the victory of Hamas on top of a pile of rubble and massive losses.

Few see a way out of this cycle.

As a militant group that refuses to recognize Israel and, according to its founding charter, is committed to its destruction, Hamas has few tools other than setting off a barrage of rockets every few years.

Israeli officials are also ready to maintain the stalemate. They will continue to apply the blockade to limit Hamas’ ability to rebuild its arsenal and rebuild its fortifications, but see a strategic advantage in keeping Hamas in power.

“We don’t want to defeat Hamas,” a senior IDF official said in an interview. Its main rival in Gaza – a more extreme Islamist faction – “is no better than Hamas,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with Israeli protocol.

Trapped, ordinary Gazans are paying the price. The unemployment rate is over 40%. Only 10 percent have direct access to drinking water, according to UNICEF. Complex medical procedures are often only available in Israel, restricting entry to patients from Gaza.

Most blame Israel in the first place. Some criticize the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ rival in the West Bank, for imposing temporary wage cuts on its employees in Gaza.

But increasingly, Gazans also accuse Hamas of exacerbating conditions through nepotism, corruption and incompetence, and of diverting too much money from social programs to military infrastructure.

“I want work more than rockets,” said Ali el-Jeredly, a 28-year-old unemployed man who is waiting to apply for a permit to work in Israel.

Mr Hamad’s son Mohammad sparked a backlash last month when it emerged that he had booked a vacation in Egypt for his brother, a luxury unaffordable for most Gazans. The news came to light shortly after a ship carrying migrants from Gaza to Europe capsized in the Aegean Sea.

The juxtaposition underscored demands for a two-tier society and synthesized much of the criticism ordinary Gazans have of Hamas.

Hamas has tried to address these concerns by seeking economic concessions from Israel. Despite all its pomp, the group needs Israel to reduce the impact of the blockade, which could improve the economy and temper internal criticism.

Mr. Hamad believes the war forced Israel to make minor concessions and confirmed Hamas’s status as the protector of Jerusalem. But governance remains “a big, big burden,” he said. “How can we feed the people? How to lift the siege on Gaza? These are the main topics that we think about all the time in Hamas. “

While there is no doubt that the blockade severely damaged Gaza’s economy, many Gazans have come to believe that Hamas’ policies have only made matters worse.

“The main responsibility for this blockade is Israel, not just anyone else,” said Hassan Dawoudi, a 26-year-old dissident repeatedly detained by Gaza’s security services for his views. “But Hamas at least has something to do with it.”

Israeli officials argue that Hamas has everything to do with the blockade, which was imposed after taking control of Gaza in 2007, refusing to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Hamas leaders still exclude these movements. Most of Gaza’s population is made up of the descendants of refugees who fled or were driven out of Israel during the 1948 war. For many, Hamas’ wish to reclaim this land still resonates.

Hamas leaders believe the group has already moderated enough, engaging in an electoral process it once rejected – even winning national elections in 2006 – and at least nominally limiting its territorial ambitions, saying in 2017 he would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

But the group never retracted its founding alliance calling for the destruction of Israel and the death of the Jews. Much of the world, including Israel and the United States, classifies it as a terrorist organization.

The group’s realpolitik – negotiating, albeit indirectly, with Israel – undermines its message.

To avoid derailing the talks, Hamas has avoided a serious military escalation in Gaza since May.

Hamas operatives continued to carry out small-scale attacks, including the murder of Israeli tour guide in November in Jerusalem, and encouraged unrest in the West Bank. Activists sent several incendiary balloons and fired bullets into Israeli territory, and killed an Israeli border guard at close range.

Israeli security services said they arrested dozens of Hamas operatives in the West Bank, where they were accused of planning new attacks. Israeli military officials also believe Hamas was linked to a wave of rocket attacks originating in Lebanon over the summer, the senior Israeli official said.

But relatively few rockets have been fired since May, and none since September, which analysts say is a signal the group wants to avoid another major air war.

Israel responded by expanding Gaza’s fishing zone, allowing Gazans to export more goods and products, and by granting 10,000 work permits, the largest number since Hamas took power. Thousands of Gazans lined up for hours to apply.

A monthly Qatari allowance, worth around $ 30 million and suspended during the war, was finally reinstated in full in November.

But a comprehensive reconstruction plan involving the wealthiest international donors has yet to be completed.

Hamas is dependent on Egypt, which controls the southern Gaza border crossing, almost as much as it is on Israel, and that relationship has improved.

Hamas denounced Egypt for making peace with Israel, and ties were further frayed in 2013, after the Egyptian military kicked out President Mohamed Morsi, which came from the same Islamist movement as Hamas.

But a 2017 detente gained momentum after the war as Morsi’s successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sought to exert influence in Gaza by playing an active role in its reconstruction. Egypt has pledged $ 500 million for post-war reconstruction.

In return, Hamas allowed billboards displaying monumental images of Mr. el-Sisi to appear on Gaza’s main boulevards – a scene unthinkable five years ago.

Despite statements by its leaders, some members of Hamas also discuss the need for a slightly more pragmatic approach to Israel, according to Motasem Dallal, political analyst in Gaza.

Mr. Dallal said some younger members of Hamas privately advocated speaking directly to Israeli officials.

“I do not see that it is not good to talk to Israel,” said Mr. Dallal, who said he was not a member of Hamas but spoke regularly with its leaders. “You are under Israeli occupation, they occupy you, they control everything in your life and they can kill you. So why not talk to them?

It is too far a bridge for the Hamas leadership.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, co-founder of the movement, said the group simply had to wait patiently for Israel to fall, just as the Taliban waited two decades for US forces to leave Afghanistan.

For him, the Israelis are a temporary colonial presence, rather than a people with a millennial connection to the land.

“Once the Taliban succeeded,” said Dr al-Zahar, “the Americans escaped”.

Iyad Abuheweila contributed reports.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Hamas, claiming victory over Israel, stuck in same old cycle
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