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Analysis

With Gaza in ruins, Hamas faces Palestinian elections as rulers, not resistors

Terror group in uphill battle as it seeks to justify its 13 years in power while its leaders live lives of apparent luxury abroad having fled impoverished Strip

A Palestinian woman checks the nylon cover on the roof of her house on a rainy day in a poor neighborhood of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza StripJan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)
A Palestinian woman checks the nylon cover on the roof of her house on a rainy day in a poor neighborhood of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza StripJan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh famously pledged to live on “zeit wa zaatar”— olive oil and dried herbs — after he led the Islamic terror group to victory on a message of armed struggle and austerity during 2006 Palestinian elections.

But he has since left the impoverished Gaza Strip and, along with some other Hamas leaders, is living in luxury as he splits his time between Turkey and Qatar. With new elections planned this spring, Hamas will struggle to campaign as a scrappy underdog that is above trading its principles for material comforts.

It remains to be seen whether the elections decreed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will actually be held. Much depends on whether his secular Fatah party and Hamas can reach some kind of agreement overcoming the bitter divisions that have thwarted previous attempts to hold a vote.

But it’s clear that Hamas’s image among many Palestinians, even onetime supporters, has suffered since 2007, when the group seized Gaza from Abbas’s forces in a week of bloody street battles.

Since then, Hamas has established its own quasi-state with its own civil service and security forces. But it has struggled to provide the territory’s 2 million people even basic services, with Gaza’s economy devastated by three wars with Israel and a crippling blockade. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent the terror group, which seeks to destroy the Jewoish state, from importing weaponry.

A Palestinian man reacts during a rally to protest against the reduction of the food basket provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), in front of the agency’s headquarters in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, on October 18, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

That some of its leaders have left Gaza has not helped. Hamas leaders who ascended the ranks when it was an underground terror group have traded their street clothes and motorbikes for business suits and shiny SUVs. Some, like Haniyeh, have decamped to luxury hotels in Turkey and Qatar, leaving lower-ranking officials and ordinary Palestinians to deal with the consequences of their policies.

“Every year, the situation is getting from bad to worse,” said Youssef Ahmed, who works in a food stall in an east Gaza City market. “People don’t have money to buy the basic things.”

Still, while Gazans grumble privately, they rarely speak out against Hamas, which has a history of locking up critics.

Ahmed said he blames “everyone” — Hamas, Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. But he said, as the ruling power, Hamas has a special responsibility.

Haniyeh, who became Palestinian prime minister after the 2006 election and is now the overall leader of Hamas, left Gaza in 2019 for what Hamas said was a temporary foreign tour. He has yet to return.

A recent video that surfaced on social media showed Haniyeh playing soccer on a well-groomed field beneath the glass skyscrapers of gas-rich Qatar — worlds away from the Beach Refugee Camp in Gaza City, where he was born and still maintains a family home. Another video from Monday showed him in a tailored suit surrounded by bodyguards and being welcomed by Qatari dignitaries at a red-carpet event.

In Gaza, meanwhile, largely because of the blockade, Palestinians grapple with 50% unemployment, frequent power outages and polluted tap water.

Israel and most Western countries consider Hamas a terrorist group because it has carried out scores of attacks over the years, including suicide bombings, that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. A long-running dispute between Hamas and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority over the provision of aid and services to Gaza has made matters worse.

Hamas blames Gaza’s suffering on the PA, Israel and the international community.

“There is a popular awareness that it’s not Hamas’s fault, and that external sides want to undermine the democratic experience,” said Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem. He said Hamas still has “massive” popular support and would win a majority in any future election.

He added that Hamas members in Gaza had also suffered from the wars, isolation and economic collapse.

Still, the suffering is not shared equally.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh greets supporters during a visit to the Ain al-Hilweh camp, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, near the southern coastal city of Sidon on September 6, 2020. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

Qatar has sent hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Gaza in recent years to shore up an informal cease-fire. That money has allowed the Hamas-run government to pay its civil servants — while imposing taxes on imports, exports, businesses and tobacco that many ordinary Palestinians have resented as compounding their suffering. Hamas security forces have violently cracked down on protests against those measures.

In another example of the inequality in Gaza, a “fast track” through the Rafah crossing with Egypt — the only way most Gazans can travel into and out of the territory — is available for those who can pay high fees or have connections to Egyptian officials. In recent months, three of Haniyeh’s sons have appeared on the list, which is made public by the Hamas-run Interior Ministry. Other travelers must go through a lengthy permit process.

Ahmed Yousef, a former adviser to Haniyeh who himself has relocated to Istanbul, acknowledges the group has fallen short of its professed ideals.

“We presented ourselves as a popular movement, not an elite or factional one, so this should have obliged us to better address the people’s needs and problems,” he said.

Akram Atallah, a longtime columnist for the West Bank-based Al-Ayyam newspaper who moved from Gaza to London in 2019, said Hamas has tried to use the “duality” of being a government and a terror group to its advantage. When faulted for not providing basic services, it claims to be a resistance group; when criticized for imposing taxes, it says it’s a legitimate government, he said.

Hamas may still do well in any elections, if only because its main competitor, Fatah, has an even longer record of failure. Fatah’s upper ranks are widely seen as being filled with corrupt individuals who are more interested in enjoying the perks of VIP status with Israel than in advancing the struggle for statehood.

Hamas officers wearing masks stand guard at the main road of Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

A December poll carried out by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found support for the parties was close — 38% for Hamas, compared to 34% for Fatah — but predicted that Haniyeh would handily defeat Abbas in a presidential race. The group surveyed 1,270 Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Assuming elections are held, “it looks like [Fatah and Hamas] will dominate the next parliament, but neither one will have a majority,” said Khalil Shikaki, the head of the center. He said independent candidates and smaller factions will win the remaining seats.

Atallah, the journalist, says Hamas is still able to appeal to “the people’s emotions,” but that the hold it once had on many has faded.

“Hamas as an authority has been exposed,” he said. “The people found out that its leaders live much better than they do.”

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