Hamas’s battle for hearts and minds

Hamas’s battle for hearts and minds

ATTEMPTS at a rapprochement between the Palestinian Islamist party, Hamas, and its more secular rival, Fatah, faltered this week almost as soon as they had begun. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and head of Fatah, quickly disowned an agreement that his negotiator had signed after talks with Hamas representatives in Yemen.

The fact that America”s vice-president, Dick Cheney, was visiting him at the time may have helped put the already reluctant Mr Abbas off the deal. Since Hamas won PA parliamentary elections in 2006, Fatah, with the help of much of the Western and Arab world, has been trying to dislodge it. After Hamas”s bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip last June left Mr Abbas in control of only the West Bank, the West and Israel talked about making the West Bank a shining example of what Gazans could aspire to—if they got rid of Hamas.

But that scheme is failing. In the West Bank, Israel has done nothing to ease the maze of checkpoints and roadblocks that cripple the economy, and its talks with Mr Abbas on a Palestinian state are yielding no visible progress. A blockade it imposed on Gaza backfired in January when militants broke through Gaza”s southern wall bordering Egypt, briefly letting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians replenish their stores. The constant exchange of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air raids escalated a month ago into a battle that killed two Israeli troops and well over 100 Gazans, many of them children.

Yet not even this death toll doused Hamas”s claims of victory. A survey earlier this month by the West Bank-based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research gave Fatah 42% of Palestinian support and Hamas 35%, a far smaller gap than two months ago. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas”s leader in Gaza (and, until Mr Abbas sacked him in June, the PA prime minister), would also beat Mr Abbas for the presidency, albeit by a whisker, for the first time ever. The presidential poll is nine months away.

Now Hamas is using a relative lull since the battle to consolidate its support. It is paying people who have lost homes or breadwinners in the clashes and ensuring that Islamic charities look after the wounded. Donations from the rest of the Muslim world have increased.

But it is not as much as Hamas needs to meet the growing demands on its own charities, which are supported by members paying 2% from their withering incomes. “The youth are very pessimistic because there is no hope,” says a relatively moderate member of Hamas”s secretive governing council, the Shura. “Girls and boys are coming to my door to be suicide-bombers. I try to convince them to go and live their lives.”

Older recruits are not turned away. They have flooded to Hamas”s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. The brigades are master suicide-bombers, but are becoming an increasingly regular military force. This boosts Hamas”s confidence that it can control rival militias, which launch most of the rockets at Israel, should it succeed in turning the current lull into a formal ceasefire.

A network of Hamas members reports weekly to senior leaders to discuss community sentiment. They alerted the movement to its plummeting popularity in the wake of its brutal takeover of Gaza last year. It responded by clamping down on clan violence and instructing its own militia to be kinder to the public.

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However, Hamas is now attempting to sell the virtues of a ceasefire to a battered people accustomed to talk of “steadfastness” and “resistance”. A group of leading thinkers is to visit universities and hold symposia to convince Gazans that a period of calm will help lift the siege and rebuild their disappearing economy. Meanwhile Hamas continues broadcasting messages about the worthlessness of Mr Abbas”s negotiations with the Israelis.

Yet for Palestinians on Gaza”s front-line, Hamas is less impressive. In the border towns, which get hardest hit when Israel invades, Fatah support is much higher than in Gaza City, according to al-Mustaqbal, a polling firm with ties to Hamas. And when Palestinians swept Hamas to power in 2006, they believed the Islamists would clean up the corruption-riddled PA and bring social and economic progress, not turn Gaza into a war zone.

So now it is trying to return to its election mandate. Tucked away in desk drawers are plans to attract foreign investment, build factories to replace goods imported from Israel, create jobs, provide public land to farmers with cheap loans and send Gaza”s fishing fleet back to sea. But Hamas has limited options. Its leaders privately concede they are desperate to end the siege. “All the leaders are interested in a ceasefire,” says a member close to Mr Haniyeh. “Israel has more weapons and can cause more damage.”

Hamas also admits that hitting more Israeli civilians, especially with the longer-range Katyusha rockets it fired earlier this month at the city of Ashkelon, may come at too high a price. “If you hit the heart of Ashkelon it will give them an excuse to hit Gaza and kill 2,000 people and the world will say nothing,” says Hamas”s foreign-affairs spokesman, Ahmed Yusuf.

So Hamas has a lot riding on Egyptian efforts to find a longer-term solution. Israel says it wants Egypt to stop arms smuggling through tunnels under its border with Gaza before a ceasefire can be discussed. Hamas says it will accept members of Mr Abbas”s presidential guard and the restoration of EU monitors on the Gaza-Egypt border, along the lines of an agreement that Israel and the PA struck before Hamas”s election. But Hamas still shows no interest in giving up stockpiling armaments.

For now, therefore, Hamas”s strategy depends on the acquiescence of Fatah and Israel, neither of which wants the Islamists to develop as a political force. This means all it has left is the threat of crisis. “If this ceasefire doesn”t work, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and all other military factions won”t surrender, there will be a massive reaction to end the siege. Creating crisis might help create opportunity,” says Mr Yusuf.