Sunday, September 23, 2007

What happened to the intifada against Hamas?

More than three months after Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, the Islamist movement appears to be tightening its grip on the estimated 1.5 million Palestinians living there.

And contrary to many expectations, Hamas still hasn't turned the Strip into an Islamic "emirate" or a Taliban-style Afghanistan. Hamas would have loved to establish an Islamic republic in Gaza, but this seems a remote possibility given the fact that there are more pressing issues that need to be addressed.

Nor has Hamas faced any serious challenge to its rule and, unlike Fatah, the movement has not witnessed internal squabbling.

Attempts by the Fatah faction to ignite an anti-Hamas uprising suffered a major blow over the weekend when the entire Fatah leadership in the Gaza Strip submitted its resignation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The resignations came in protest against the refusal of PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad to pay salaries to thousands of former Fatah policemen and security officials who lost their jobs after the Hamas takeover.

Only a few weeks ago Fatah officials in Ramallah said they could see the first signs of an "intifada" against Hamas in the Strip. Their optimism was based on a series of demonstrations organized by Fatah activists following Friday prayers in Gaza City. The demonstrations, which drew thousands of Palestinians, were held in a public square and often ended in clashes with Hamas's security forces.

"This is the beginning of the end of the Hamas rule," a jubilant Fatah official remarked then. "In the coming weeks we will see more people joining the demonstrations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This is a real intifada."

But the protests have since disappeared. Some Fatah leaders have blamed Hamas's "iron-fist" policy, pointing out that many demonstrators had been brutally beaten or arrested.

Other leaders, however, said ongoing divisions inside Fatah and the lack of a charismatic leadership were the main reason why Hamas had been able to assert its power.

The feeling among many Palestinians is that Abbas and Fatah chose, after the Hamas "coup," to direct all their energies toward preventing a similar scenario in the West Bank.

Hundreds of Hamas supporters and figures in the West Bank have been rounded up in one of the biggest clampdowns on the movement since 1996. In addition, dozens of Hamas-linked institutions have either been closed down or destroyed.

Simultaneously, Hamas's security forces and militias have spent the past three months eliminating what was left of Fatah's bases of power in the Gaza Strip.

Most of the influential Fatah-affiliated clans have been disarmed. The most notorious among them was the Dughmush clan, whose members operated as mercenaries for various armed groups and even for senior Fatah security commanders. Ever since the Hamas takeover, the Dughmushes have been keeping a low profile and many of them have surrendered their weapons without resistance.

One of the leaders of the clan, Mumtaz Dughmush, headed an al-Qaida-style gang called the Army of Islam. The gang was responsible for the kidnapping of several Westerners, including BBC reporter Alan Johnston, and the bombing of more than 50 Internet cafes, restaurants and hair salons.

The kidnappings prompted most foreigners to stay away from the Gaza Strip. In recent weeks, however, many have begun returning - so far without facing real threats.

Fatah once used to boast it had more than 50,000 gunmen in the Strip who were capable of crushing Hamas at any time. Palestinian journalists interviewed by The Jerusalem Post by phone said it's almost impossible these days to find Fatah gunmen on the streets of the Gaza Strip.

"It's as if the earth had swallowed all of them," commented one journalist who writes for a London-based Arab newspaper. "It's even more amazing that Fatah hasn't been able to reorganize itself and to carry out what they call resistance operations against Hamas."

Another journalist said he did not believe there were many people in the Strip who missed the Fatah gunmen.

"To be honest with you, there is a sense of relief among the people here that these guys are no longer roaming the streets," he said. "Many of them were responsible for the state of chaos and lawlessness that prevailed in the Gaza Strip before the Hamas coup."

Yet both journalists agreed that it was only a matter of time before the situation deteriorated again. They noted that although Hamas had been in power for three months, the movement hasn't been able to solve major problems such as the reopening of the border crossings and improving the economy.

The real problem is that many in Gaza still don't regard Fatah as preferable to Hamas.

When Hamas took full control over the Strip, Fatah spokesmen warned that the movement would turn the area into a dangerous and radical Islamic emirate, where adulterers and adulteresses would be stoned to death and thieves would have their arms amputated in public squares.

But Hamas, whose leaders reiterated last week that they were still interested in a dialogue with the West, has been doing its utmost to distance itself from al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The major concern of most Gazans these days is not whether Hamas would impose strict Shari'a (Islamic religious) laws, but whether they would be able to earn a decent living and feed their children.

Hamas's presence in power has only aggravated the economic crisis there and many Palestinians don't even see a light at the end of the tunnel. The continued closure of the borders with Israel and Egypt, as well as financial and political sanctions imposed on the Hamas government, have created an atmosphere of despair and frustration, especially among the youth.

"Fine, Hamas has put an end to the anarchy, but what about the economy?" asked a merchant from Gaza City. "I don't think the situation can continue like this for long."

When a foreign institution recently announced a vacancy for a doorman, its managers were flooded, within hours, with more than 2,500 applications - many from university graduates. After all, the salary was relatively high by local standards: $350 a month.

Almost every Palestinian knows that Hamas will remain in power for as long as Fatah is disunited and unreformed. But Fatah and its leader, Abbas, are still far from drawing the requisite conclusions and offering the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas.

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