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Surge of support for Hamas fading in Gaza

Palestinians ask what fight with Israel achieved

The Washington Post

Strung across chaotic streets and through mazes of narrow alleys, the iconic green flags of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, festoon the gray cement-block buildings.

In the streets of the Jabalya refugee camp, where Hamas was born a quarter of a century ago, the public trappings of ascendant Islamist power are impossible to miss.

After prayers, men old enough to remember the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which began a decades-long occupation of the Gaza Strip, claim Hamas has finally won a fight with Israel and should now march on Tel Aviv.

But as the nervous ecstasy of conflict gives way to a grim status quo, there are already signs, even in the camp, to suggest that any power Hamas has derived from its recent conflict with Israel is fading. The change in sentiment is coming gradually, along generational and gender lines, and suggests a limit to any political benefits for Hamas gained through armed conflict.

As older men speak of an imminent return to lost family land inside Israel, many younger men, who grew up in the bitter decades after the first Palestinian uprising, ask what precisely Hamas accomplished during the eight-day confrontation.

So, too, do some of the refugee camp’s women.

“What kind of victory?” asked Um Ram Abu Rokba, covered in pious, Islamic-style dress as she walked home from afternoon prayer. “They are lying to the people, it is a kind of blackmail.”

Abu Rokba, who would give only her nickname, said, “The Jews are hurt, we are hurt. If they lose a child, they cry. If we lose a child, we cry. It is the same. My own wish is only peace and security.”

It is not the message of the Hamas leadership, as it prepares for an expansive celebration this month to mark the 25th anniversary of a movement classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

Facing an increasingly restless population in the Gaza Strip before the recent conflict, Hamas emerged more popular, although for how long remains to be seen.

Since taking full control of the strip after a brief, brutal fight with the secular Fatah movement seven years ago, Hamas has imposed, bit by bit, a form of Islamist rule under which many Gazans chafe.

A number of new mosques, already plentiful there, are being built across the strip at a time when many Gazans need houses. Bikinis, once permitted in semiprivate oceanfront clubs, have been banned from Gaza’s beaches. Men and women socializing together at night are often asked by Hamas police for proof of marriage.

But the recent wartime display of Hamas’s new arsenal — with rockets that reached Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem — have boosted morale among some Gazans. Among the fading billboards celebrating the deaths of Palestinians in past conflicts with Israel, new posters appear memorializing those killed in the latest one.

To Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas founder and the movement’s foreign minister, Hamas’ performance proved decisively that only military action against Israel, rather than negotiations favored by Fatah and the U.S., will secure a Palestinian state.

“The most important fact that has emerged from this is Hamas’ ability to convince all Palestinians of our way,” Zahar said in an interview. “We gave Fatah a full opportunity to implement its way, and it failed.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader, favors a two-state solution to the conflict that envisions a Palestinian state emerging in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war.

On Thursday Abbas, in defiance of American and Israeli wishes, received United Nations approval for upgraded diplomatic status that in effect recognizes a Palestinian state in concept alongside Israel.

“This brings nothing to us except disadvantages,” said Zahar. “First, our land is not just the West Bank and Gaza, and that is important. It is all of Palestine.”

Kamal Ajrami, a 54-year-old police officer, said he believes that a military victory over Israel is possible. “As much as the Jews did to us, it is different now,” Ajrami said as he left a mosque. “We have now reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We are strong, and as they hit us in our houses, they will feel the same now in theirs.”

The lingering dreams of an older generation, though, bring a skeptical response from the younger one.

A poster of Abdullah Muzannar hangs in the window of his family’s sweet shop. His smiling face floats superimposed in front of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. He was 19 years old, a university student who wanted to be a chemistry teacher, when he was killed from the blast of an Israeli airstrike on the home of a neighbor aligned with Hamas.

Inside the shop, Sami Badawi, 26, works behind a counter crowded with sticky pastries. On the night before he died, Muzannar rushed to the hospital when he heard Badawi’s 7-month-old son had been taken there with a fever, staying throughout the night and offering to pay any bills.

“He loved my son,” said Badawi, a tall, rail-thin man with dark circles under his eyes. He continued, “Victory for what? For the people who died in this war? Abdullah was my best friend, and this was all just losses.”