Embattled Hamas Shows its Moderate Face

RAMALLAH – The Islamic resistance movement Hamas’s rule of Gaza is facing protracted political and military opposition from within Gaza, other Palestinian territories and abroad.

On Saturday a guerrilla group put down the fiercest military challenge to Hamas rule since it took over the coastal territory in the June 2007 coup when it overthrew a Palestinian Authority (PA)-led unity government. Hamas had earlier won legislative elections in Gaza in 2006.

On Friday after mid-day prayers members of the extremist group Jund Ansar Allah, meaning "Soldiers of God," and allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda, barricaded themselves inside a mosque filled with hundreds of worshippers and supporters in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

The leader of the Salafist group Abdul Latif Moussa, surrounded by a number of armed and masked men including one with a suicide belt, declared the town an Islamic Emirate that would fall under theocratic rule independent of the Hamas government.

Hamas security men flooded the area, and after several gun battles which lasted through the night and left 22 dead, re-established authority in the town.

Six bystanders were killed in the gunfire, six Hamas men lost their lives, and 10 extremists including Moussa were killed. His house was later blown up.

According to Hamas authorities, Jund Ansar Allah has been behind a number of kidnappings and bombing attacks on beauty parlors, CD stores, Internet cafes and Christian sites, which they perceive as immoral.

The group in turn has accused Gaza’s de-facto government of failing to establish Islamic law in the coastal territory, and giving up Jihad against Israel by enforcing a cease fire.

Its members are proponents of a return to what they interpret as the roots of Islam, or Salafism, as advocated by the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia.

Israeli security has stated that there are a number of Al-Qaeda linked extremist groups in Gaza who are funded and trained abroad, and who then slip back into the strip through the smuggling tunnels which link Gaza with Egypt’s Sinai.

"This is not just a few disgruntled extremists but the tip of the iceberg, and a sign of growing extremism in Gaza which is only going to get worse," says Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University, near Ramallah.

"The Israelis have shot themselves in the foot with the crippling siege of Gaza," Awad tells IPS. "The suffering and hardship endured by Gazans has not moderated them politically. When people have lost everything and have no hope, they turn to revenge.

"In the future Israel will regret not negotiating with a more moderate Hamas government when these extremists strengthen their grip on power."

Israel helped nurture Hamas when the organization was first established in 1987 as a bulwark against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

When the PLO-affiliated PA came to power in 1994 following the Oslo Accords, Israel weakened it with military attacks and mass arrest campaigns. This in turn strengthened Hamas.

Despite negotiation attempts by more moderate elements within Hamas, Israel continues the Gaza blockade, making conditions ripe for extremist groups to flourish.

While Al-Qaeda linked extremists pose a real threat to Hamas rule, the organization is also facing renewed political opposition from Fatah, affiliated to the PA which rules the West Bank. The PA lost the 2006 legislative elections to Hamas following accusations of corruption. However, Fatah emerged strengthened from its recently held Sixth Revolutionary Conference in Bethlehem where a new and more credible leadership was elected.

According to a poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), an estimated 52 percent of Palestinians would vote for Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas if elections were held today.

This compares to 38 percent who would vote for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The poll also indicated that respondents believed that Fatah would become stronger and more unified in the aftermath of its conference.

"Hamas lost a lot of popularity when it refused to allow trapped Fatah leaders in Gaza to attend the conference," said Awad.

Contributing to Hamas’s fall in support has been the increasing abuse of human rights and the stifling of civil liberties.

Last month a prominent Hamas judge in Gaza said that from September all the territory’s female lawyers would be required to cover their hair and wear long gowns under their billowing judicial gowns.

Hamas was also said to be formulating a moral code of conduct which would prevent gender mixing in large crowds in public places amongst other things.

"This was the opinion of one minister who had not consulted with the rest of the Hamas government. Most of us are against this and the matter is still being appraised," Dr Ahmed Yousef, political advisor to Haniyeh told IPS.

It would appear that Hamas’s political survival is contingent on its ability to adapt to challenges on the ground and to be more flexible politically in regard to the international community and negotiations with the PA.

Awad believes Hamas has blanket policies and ideologies, and lacks the ability to deal with day-to-day realities including negotiating with the PA and with regional leaders, and in recognizing Israel’s existence as a political fact.

"Hamas lacks good political tacticians. Using the suffering in Gaza to its political advantage is one of its leverage points. The international community is not going to stand by and watch Gazans starve to death and Hamas knows this," Awad told IPS.

Prof Moshe Maoz from Jerusalem’s Hebrew university believes that the more pragmatic and moderate elements in Hamas are reviewing their political standing.

"Hamas has developed a relationship of sorts with some members of the international community, and they will explore this. They will also probably become more pragmatic in talks with the PA," Maoz told IPS.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.