Hamas is becoming what it says it opposes

Chris McGreal reports: Samah Ahmed is once again a prisoner of Gaza, but this time it is at the hands of Hamas not Israel.

Years of travelling relatively freely after Israel lost control of the enclave’s border with Egypt came to an abrupt halt a few months ago when Ahmed’s strident criticisms of Hamas caught the attention of Gaza’s increasingly unpopular Islamist rulers.

Ahmed was beaten and stabbed at a political demonstration. Her brother was warned to keep her in line. Then Hamas stopped Ahmed leaving the Gaza Strip. Four times.

“I try to tell the truth and maybe the government didn’t like it,” she said of her blog. “Anything that is not organised by the Hamas government is viewed as against the government.”

Hamas has been enjoying a surge in popularity following the swap of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for the release of more than a 1,000 Palestinian prisoners last month.

“The people are now looking up to Hamas,” said one of the movement’s leaders, Ismail Radwan. “With the prisoner release, Hamas has given to the people what no other faction has given. If there is an election tomorrow we will win even more votes than before.”

But the huge rallies to welcome the prisoners back masked growing disillusionment with the armed Islamist movement’s five-year rule amid rising dissatisfaction at corruption, suppression of political opposition and, above all, its claim that violent resistance to Israeli occupation is more important than jobs.

“The prisoner swap has boosted Hamas’s popularity for now,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar university in Gaza. “But it won’t last more than a few months. Hamas’s popularity has declined every year it has been in power. Hamas control of Gaza brought an Israeli blockade and siege. Even though it was Israeli-imposed, a lot of people blame Hamas. The Palestinians voted Hamas for reform and change. They didn’t vote for siege and blockade and unemployment. They voted to end the corruption. None of that happened.”

Hamas’s upset election victory in 2006 was built largely on despair with the corruption, misgovernance and authoritarianism of the ruling Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat until his death two years earlier. Many residents of Gaza now voice similar complaints about Hamas.

“They’re back to the same old corruption,” said Mohammed Mansour, a human rights activist and part of a growing community of young people pressing for political change. “Hamas is a party that only benefits its own party, its own supporters. If you want a job, if you want to do business, you must be a supporter of Hamas. Some people in Hamas have got very rich. You see the big houses, you see the new cars.”

That has created resentment among Gazans struggling to get by in the face of mass unemployment and low incomes.

But the real despair is around the widespread lack of hope for change as Hamas touts armed conflict with Israel as more important that economic reconstruction, and the sometimes violent political feud with its arch-rival Fatah has divided the Palestinian territories. While Hamas controls Gaza, Fatah governs the West Bank – a situation that plays into Israel’s hands.

“I think people are different now,” said Ola Anan, a 27-year-old computer engineer. “It’s a long time since anything has changed. I think people feel hopeless that they’re going to change. If it’s going to change it’s only for the worse. A lot of people are losing faith in politics altogether. Sometimes I think we need to follow the Arab spring and create something new. People are so fed up.”

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