Gaza City – This fall at a beachfront hotel in Gaza City, hundreds of Gaza civilian leaders crowded into a Hamas-sponsored conference to hear claims of Hamas’ impending victory over Israel.
“The State of Israel will be history,” said the conference’s director, Kanan Abed, in a speech broadcast across the Strip. “Palestine Outside Palestine: Prepare Your Papers. You Will Return To Palestine After Independence.”
However, the reality was almost the opposite.
Seven months after Hamas began an 11-day war with Israel, the standoff between Israel and the Islamic movement has returned to almost where it was before the war broke out.
Israeli attacks in May killed at least 130 civilians and 100 militants, and destroyed or damaged more than 1,000 homes, shops and offices in Gaza. Rockets from Hamas and its allies killed 13 people in Israel and, erroneously, killed at least 15 Palestinians in Gaza.
But otherwise, not much has changed. The 14-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza continues. The Palestinian leadership is divided between Gaza and the West Bank. The prospect of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which have been moribund since 2014, is as remote as ever.
Even Hamas’s one undeniable advantage – the boom in popularity among Palestinians, burned out by starting the war in the first place – has endured, with its polling numbers falling to nearly the same level they did earlier this year. Were.
As the leader of the armed resistance against Israel, it has been tarnished by growing criticism of Gaza’s regime and concerns about corruption and rampant unemployment. And although the group publicly declares that it conquered Israel during the fighting in May, it is privately pushing for piecemeal economic concessions from Israel and a reconstruction deal to repair the yet-to-be-war damages. remains to be received.
Ghazi Hamad, a member of the group’s political council in Gaza, said in a recent interview, “Everything is frozen here, you might say – it will be cloudy, foggy.” “It’s not clear in which direction we’re headed.”
Hamas has been here many times before.
Its previous wars with Israel – in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014 – each ended with Hamas claiming victory over piles of rubble and causing massive casualties.
Very few people 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 other tools than deflecting a barrage of rockets every few years.
Israeli officials are also prepared to maintain the impasse. They would continue to enforce a blockade limiting Hamas’ ability to restore 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 Israeli military official said in an interview. Its main rival in Gaza – a more extreme Islamist faction – is “no better than Hamas,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with Israeli protocol.
Common gajans stuck in the middle are paying the price. The unemployment rate is over 40 percent. According to UNICEF, only 10 percent have direct access to clean water. Complicated medical procedures are often only available in Israel, which restricts the admission of Gaza patients.
First of all blame Israel. Some criticize Hamas’ rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which has temporarily cut the wages of its employees in Gaza.
But increasingly, Gazan also blames Hamas for worsening the situation through nepotism, corruption and incompetence, and diverting too much money for military infrastructure from social programs.
“I want more work than rockets,” said 28-year-old unemployed Ali Al-Jeredli, who was waiting to apply for a permit to work in Israel.
Last month, Mr. Hamad’s son, Mohamed, sparked a furious reaction when it emerged that he had booked an Egyptian vacation for his brother, which was not a luxury for most of the Gazans. The news came shortly after a ship smuggling Gaza to Europe capsized in the Aegean.
This association underpinned the claims of a two-tier society and greatly synthesized Gazan’s criticism of the general for Hamas.
Hamas is trying to address these concerns by seeking economic concessions from Israel. For all its outbursts, the group has called for Israel to mitigate the effects of the blockade, thereby improving the economy and reducing domestic criticism.
Mr Hamad believes that the war forced minor concessions from Israel, and reaffirmed Hamas’ position as defender of Jerusalem. But the regime remains “a big, big burden”, he said. “How can we feed people? How can we lift the siege on Gaza? These are the main issues that we are discussing inside Hamas all the time.”
While there is little doubt that the blockade badly damaged Gaza’s economy, many Gazans are beginning to believe that Hamas’ policies have made it worse.
“The first person responsible for this blockade is Israel, no one else,” said Hassan Daoudi, a 26-year-old dissident who was detained several times by Gaza security services for his views. “But Hamas has at least something to do with it.”
Israeli officials argue that Hamas has nothing to do with the blockade, imposed in 2007 after the capture of Gaza, which refused to recognize Israel and relinquish violence.
Hamas leaders still deny those moves. The majority of Gaza’s population consists of descendants of refugees who fled or were driven out of Israel during the 1948 war. For many, Hamas’s resolve to reclaim that land still resonates.
Hamas leaders think the group has already been liberal enough, engaging in an electoral process it once rejected – even winning the national election in 2006 – and at least Nominally limiting its territorial ambitions, in 2017 it will accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. ,
But the group never abandoned its founding covenant calling for the destruction of Israel and the death of the Jews. Most of the world, including Israel and the United States, lists it as a terrorist organization.
The group’s de facto political dialogue – albeit indirectly, with Israel – undermines its message.
To avoid ruining the talks, Hamas has postponed a serious military escalation in Gaza since May.
Hamas members have continued to carry out small-scale attacks, including the November killing of an Israeli tour guide in Jerusalem, and have encouraged unrest in the West Bank. Terrorists have sent several incendiary balloons and opened fire into Israeli territory, and killed an Israeli border guard at point-blank range.
Israeli security services said they had arrested dozens of Hamas operatives in the West Bank, where they were accused of planning further attacks. Israeli military officials also believe Hamas was linked to a flurry of rocket attacks off Lebanon in 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 sign the group wants to avoid another major air battle.
Israel has responded by expanding Gaza’s fishing area, allowing Gazaans to export more goods and produce, and providing 10,000 work permits, the most since Hamas came to power. Thousands of Ghajans stood in line for hours to apply.
A monthly stipend from Qatar, which cost about $30 million and was suspended during the war, was eventually fully reinstated in November.
But a comprehensive reconstruction plan involving wealthy international donors has yet to be completed.
Hamas is dependent on Egypt, which controls Gaza’s southern border, almost as much as it depends on Israel, and has improved in that regard.
Hamas has denounced Egypt for making peace with Israel, and relations worsened in 2013, when the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who came from a similar Islamist movement as Hamas.
But a 2017 defense strengthened after the war as Mr Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, sought to exert influence in Gaza by taking 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. al-Sisi to pop up on major Gaza Boulevards – a sight unimaginable five years ago.
Despite the announcements of its leadership, there are also discussions among some members of Hamas about the need for a slightly more pragmatic approach to Israel, according to Motesem Dalal, a political analyst in Gaza.
Mr Dalal said some young members of Hamas had privately advocated for direct talks with Israeli officials.
“I don’t see that talking to Israel is not good,” said Mr Dalal, who said he is not a member of Hamas but talks regularly with its leaders. “You’re occupied by Israel, they’re taking over you, they’re controlling everything in your life, and they can kill you. So why not talk to them?”
This is a far cry for the leaders of Hamas.
The movement’s co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahr said the group simply needed to wait patiently for Israel to collapse, just as the Taliban waited two decades for US forces to leave Afghanistan.
To them, Israel is a temporary colonial presence, not a people who have had a centuries-old connection to the land.
“Once the Taliban succeeded,” Dr. al-Zahra said, “the Americans fled.”
iyad abuhaweela Contributed to reporting.