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Israel's ferocious bombardment of Gaza was intended to teach its radical Islamist government a permanent lesson. But after three weeks of fighting, Hamas has not been battered into submission. And, amid the rubble, the organisation's prestige among many of the Palestinians remains intact. Peter Beaumont and Hazem Balousha in Gaza City report
18 January 2009
Peter Beaumont and Hazem Balousha
There is little left to see of the house that once belonged to Ayad Siam in Gaza's Sheikh Radwan district. There is a hole, 20ft deep and twice as broad, and a few slabs of concrete and a snarl of tangled pipes. The bodies have gone. They were the bodies of Ayad and his brother, Said Siam, Hamas's 50-year-old minister of the interior, who was targeted in a joint operation last week by the Israeli air force and Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency.
Across Gaza, Hamas personnel have been targeted and its strongholds bombed in an attempt to destroy the organisation's infrastructure. But what, beyond death and destruction, has Israel achieved by its onslaught? And what, as Israel moves towards a unilateral ceasefire ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama as US President on Tuesday, is left of Hamas?
In the case of Said Siam and his Interior Ministry - once one of Hamas's major centres of power - the assessment is simple to make. The four-storey Interior Ministry complex was flattened by a missile strike early in the campaign. Police stations and other facilities have also been destroyed. Scores, perhaps several hundred, of his men have died. And while buildings can be rebuilt, the death of Siam is something different.
The most senior Hamas figure to be killed by Israel since the assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Hamas's political leader, in 2004, Siam was a pillar of the organisation, a hardliner close to exiled leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus. He was credited with commanding its security apparatus, including Hamas's elite executive force.
It was Siam who was reputedly one of the most forceful movers against the rival Fatah faction in the so-called "internal fighting" between the organisations that followed Hamas's election victory in Gaza in 2006. Hamas won that battle, ousting its secular opponents from Gaza and launching the chain of events that led to Israel's assault on its power-base. Now the Hamas hardman is gone. But the organisation's prestige appears to have survived intact, and even emerged enhanced.
Wael Abd Latef, 38, a bookshop owner from the Tal el-Hawa district of Gaza City, was convinced that the long days of bombardment have had little effect on Hamas. He abandoned his house five days ago with the arrival of Israeli tanks, and on Friday returned to check his property. "It's a war against the civilians. It's not against Hamas," he said. "They think that it's against Hamas, but it's not. The situation is a disaster for Palestinian people, not Hamas. Israel started the war against Palestinians. They imposed sanctions on Palestinians. Hamas demands the world just leave the siege and break the blockade on Palestinians by opening the curtains. Hamas spent a long time helping the Palestinian people here and worked for its interests.
"Hamas has the authority and the legitimacy to rule Gaza. I don't think the war affected Hamas that much. They destroyed everything, but Hamas is still there. Hamas will show its power when the war is over." He was scathing about the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah, whose term in office is ending.
Across Gaza and the West Bank, the rumblings of discontent have grown as Abbas stood on the sidelines while Israeli artillery has pounded Gaza. "Abbas has no authority to lead the Palestinian people. When he was elected, we were expecting him to be the leader for all Palestinian people, but he became just a leader for Fatah and its people. I don't think he will be back here."
Not everyone on the strip is as supportive of Hamas. Ahmed Tafwiq, 27, a civil servant from Shujaih, said: "I am totally against the so-called resistance, because it proved a total failure. We used to hear these slogans of how strong our resistance is. I believed the slogans. But when the war started, nothing happened. I live in an area close to the border with Israel. I used to see hundreds of Hamas and other factions' gunmen waiting for Israeli troops who might storm Gaza. But, since the first day of the war, none of them appeared. And Hamas still talks about a resistance that did nothing to protect our people."
But there is little doubt that Israel's onslaught on the government of Gaza has generated sympathy for Hamas, even on the West Bank, where Fatah dominates. Qadourah Fares, a former member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and head of the Palestinian Prisoner's Association, was convinced that, far from weakening the organisation, Israel's war has strengthened its grassroots support.
"The war in Gaza will certainly strengthen Hamas in Palestinian society. Israel may be able to weaken Hamas militarily, but they cannot eliminate it at the popular level. And once the military activities halt in Gaza, Hamas will declare victory and this will certainly strengthen it in the West Bank. Fatah, on the other hand, will lose more ground, because this is the first time in its history that it is neither leading nor participating in the conflict against Israel. The Palestinian people are fighting the occupation, while Fatah is playing the role of the spectator."
Hamas, which means "zeal" in Arabic, now stands at a crossroads. The organisation has become familiar to the world as a movement dedicated to the destruction of Israel: a terrorist group, uninterested in peace, and brutal in the way it has exerted its control on Gaza. But the simplicity of this description is misleading.
Its foundation in 1987 - as Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, one of its founders, explained to his Israeli interrogators, who had tortured the paraplegic cleric's son within his earshot to persuade him to talk - was directed both towards cementing Gaza's socially conservative traditions and engaging in armed struggle against Israel. Instrumental in launching the first intifada, the greatest problem with its depiction - as Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at City University claimed - is the insistence on framing it exclusively in political and military terms.
"You have to understand it as a movement that has grown out of the social fabric, just as Hezbollah emerged from Lebanon," she said last week, after returning from a visit to the region.
Its covenant - drawn up by Yassin and fellow founders in the al-Shatti refugee camp in Gaza City - declared that all the lands of what was British Mandate Palestine, which preceded Israel's creation, were an Islamic waqf, an endowment given by God to Muslims for all time.
Assassinated by the Israelis in 2004, Yassin was a pragmatist. Even as the Oslo peace process - which Hamas opposed - was dying and Hamas was sending suicide bombers to Israel, Yassin was also outlining a more nuanced vision. While a final settlement with Israel could never be achieved, what was possible, said Yassin and later leaders, was a lengthy hudna - a generation-long cessation of hostilities with Israel, if Israel was prepared to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. The logic was simple. Yassin was convinced that one day Israel would fail or be defeated. But he believed, too, that that was the work for future generations.
Yassin's successor and co-founder of Hamas was Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who was prone to delivering bloodthirsty speeches and took a far more hardline view. But there were others who took an even more pragmatic position than Yassin. In the aftermath of municipal elections in 2005, which gave Hamas effective control of several West Bank cities, its leaders were obliged to co-operate with Israel over key issues.
The differences within Hamas are not new. Struggles between factions have long existed, leading to defections and violence. There have been battles between the leadership in Gaza and colleagues on the West Bank; between the leadership in Palestine and those surrounding leader Khaled Meshaal in exile in Damascus; between hardliners such as Siam and figures regarded as more moderate, whose influence had been believed to be waning.
When the violence ceases, Hamas is likely to be forced to enter a period of self-examination. "The outcome already is that Hamas has realised that it can't do anything on its own," says Zaki Chehab, a journalist with Al Hayat and author of Inside Hamas. "Hamas is a guerilla force. It has not lost a large number of people in terms of its overall membership. In the long term, this will force Hamas to think more internally." Chehab also believed that the assault on Gaza coincided with a collapse of support even among moderate Palestinians for a peace process.
Echoing Chehab, Nicholas Pelham of the International Crisis Group in Jerusalem believed that, while Hamas may survive the present events, it is likely to be "chastened". "I think they have been surprised by the scale of Israel's attack. But at the end of this Hamas is still going to be there. It will have to reassess its relationship with Fatah. The conflict with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority has been debilitating. They only weaken themselves. They need to re-examine reconciliation. And if that happens, it is only going to make it harder for the Israelis."
It is this that might render pyrrhic any victory that Israel claims. Hamas seems likely to survive with a capacity to fire rockets - even if it chooses not to. And the experience of Israel's own anti-smuggling operations on Gaza's Rafah border was that, with even troops on the ground, it could not destroy all the tunnels. But most important of all is Hamas's position in Palestinian society and its influence. If it comes through the past three weeks with more support, and more unified with its rivals, then it seems hard to see what real benefits Israel will have gained, save to have conducted a savage demonstration of power.
One possible form of a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah may be a renewed agreement in line with the text of the Mecca agreement in 2007, which brought an end to the internal fighting. Hamas signed a deal that said it would "respect" - if not commit itself to - international agreements signed by the Fatah-led Palestine Liberation Organisation, including, some understood, the PLO's recognition of the state of Israel.
The terms are as likely to be dictated by Fatah's declining fortunes as by any new authority that Hamas derives from the horror of Gaza. "The future of Fatah is being tested as never before," said Zakariya Mohammad, a Fatah activist from the West Bank city of Hebron.
"It can decide whether it wants to persist or disappear. It's a matter of to be or not to be. If it engages [with Hamas], it has the opportunity to survive; if it stays passive as regards Gaza, it will certainly vanish.
"There are some leaders who were waiting for Hamas to be broken, believing that this will restore the glory of Fatah. I do not understand how they expect to be popular betting on the enemy to win. They are mistaken when they think that Hamas will be swept away.
"The majority of Fatah want to join the current battle, while the leadership remains committed to calm. Fatah can seize the golden opportunity now in order to restore its national credibility by engaging. If not, Fatah and the PLO will be pronounced dead within a very short period of time."
The two territories of Palestine
West Bank 2,400,000+ with Palestinian Arab (Muslim) 75%, Palestinian Arab (Christian) 8%, Jewish 17%)
Gaza Strip 1,500,000+ with Palestinian Arab (Muslim) 99.4%
West Bank Ramallah in the central West Bank is the main power base of Fatah.
Gaza Birthplace of Hamas, which has been in power since 2006.
West Bank Hebron - 166, 000.
Gaza Gaza City - 410, 000.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009
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