Hamas’ Short Reign Is Long on Problems

Times Staff Writer

The Islamist group Hamas, in control of the Palestinian Authority for less than a month, is already in deeper trouble than critics had predicted: diplomatically isolated, profoundly in debt and in a state of increasing internal disarray.

Hardship is beginning to take hold among the families of tens of thousands of civil servants who have gone unpaid because of the dramatic drop in foreign aid. Angry gunmen, many from the rival Fatah faction that Hamas defeated in January parliamentary elections, roam the streets of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The militant movement alienated moderate Arab regimes last week with its contention that a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, carried out by a different radical Palestinian group, was a “legitimate form of resistance.”

“The question is really where they can go from here,” Palestinian analyst Talal Okal said. “It looks like a dead end -- but one that could drag down everyone else along with them.”

Still uncertain is whether ordinary Palestinians would prefer to see a flawed and struggling Hamas government stay afloat rather than witness the fulfillment of what they see as Israeli and U.S. wishes to bring about its downfall.

“Our help is from Allah, not from America and the West,” said Hamed abu Harbid, a 27-year-old government employee who is scrambling to support his elderly parents as well as his wife and two daughters in the absence of a paycheck. “A collapse of the Hamas government wouldn’t mean the alternative was any better.”


Since the swearing-in of its prime minister and Cabinet last month, Hamas has repeatedly and defiantly insisted that it can get by without the Western aid that was cut off in response to its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. But a hoped-for infusion of large-scale aid from the Arab and Muslim world has been slow to materialize; instead it has received sums that would cover less than a month’s outlays.

In the meantime, neighbors such as Jordan and Egypt, both of which have peace treaties with Israel, are pressing Hamas to moderate its views. Jordan snubbed Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, waving him off a scheduled visit and accusing Hamas of maintaining arms caches in its territory, which Hamas angrily denied.

Egypt, according to Israeli news reports, is urging Hamas to adopt some formula that will amount to acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, most likely an Arab League declaration dating to 2002 that includes recognition of a Jewish state within pre-1967 armistice lines. But Hamas has resisted, and Egypt is said to be trying to broker talks between moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Rivalries have steadily sharpened in recent weeks between Hamas and Abbas, who was elected a year earlier than Hamas and wields powers of his own as head of the executive branch. The two sides have repeatedly sought to limit each other’s authority and cancel each other’s decrees.

Within Hamas, it has become clear there is little in the way of an established chain of authority. Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister who is generally thought of as a leader of Hamas’ pragmatist faction, has found himself preempted again and again by the group’s hard-line exiled leader, Khaled Meshaal.

Israeli analysts believe that Haniyeh, despite having a loyal following in Gaza, has been unable to muster any genuine authority in policy decisions and is fast proving a figurehead.

“The thing is, no one is really in charge,” said Shlomo Gazit, a former head of Israeli army intelligence. “There are so many competing interests within Hamas, so the status quo, the fallback position, is the ideology that Hamas has always had, and they will adopt positions that have an internal logic consistent with that.”

Abbas too is plagued by a chronic lack of clout, despite the desire of Israel and the United States to bolster his standing. His prestige among Palestinians sagged badly during his first year in office, when he was unable to win any significant concessions from Israel.

Israel is trying to keep a line of communication open with Abbas while moving to sever nearly all ties with the Hamas government. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Ephraim Sneh, an influential Labor Party lawmaker, recently met secretly with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, with the blessing of Olmert.

Hamas Cabinet ministers, meanwhile, are discovering the many ways in which they can be undermined by subordinates loyal to Fatah, who still make up the bulk of employees in government agencies.

Several Hamas ministers are said to have nearly come to blows with aides who refused to carry out their bidding, or did so half-heartedly.

In Gaza, where arguments are often settled with gunplay, Hamas has made little progress in stemming outbreaks of street violence, much of it orchestrated by disgruntled Fatah gunmen but augmented by fights between Palestinian criminal gangs and by clan warfare.

Last week, Hamas went so far as to name a wanted Palestinian militant leader, Jamal abu Samhadana, to a senior security post. Hamas officials expressed hope that Abu Samhadana’s standing as a clan chieftain could help restore some semblance of order in the lawless southern Gaza Strip, where his family is based. The move was excoriated by the United States and Israel, which saw the appointment as a reward to Abu Samhadana for carrying out attacks against Israel.

Abbas has issued a decree annulling the appointment; Hamas insisted it would stand. The dispute triggered two days of street clashes between rival gunmen, including a shootout Sunday at the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza City that left three people injured.

Many of the more than 140,000 Palestinian government workers who went unpaid this month are Fatah loyalists, so some of their anger over the cutoff of salaries is being directed at Hamas.

This month, a defiant Haniyeh told a rally that Palestinians would live, if necessary, on “salt, olives and hyssop” -- an herb -- rather than being starved into submission by the international aid cutoff. Days later, a cartoon in the Palestinian newspaper Al Ayyam showed a man trying to use his bank card at an automated teller machine, with salt, olives and hyssop offered instead of money.

But Israel and the United States come in for much of the blame from Palestinians. Even those who do not support Hamas are furious over Israel’s withholding of about $55 million in monthly tax revenue it is supposed to collect on the Palestinians’ behalf.

When Fatah ran the government, it was not unusual for the Palestinian Authority to issue paychecks weeks late, with the families of most unpaid government workers borrowing and pinching pennies and making do. A humanitarian crisis could be months away, but a poll last week by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion indicated that nearly 60% of Palestinians believed that the elimination of foreign aid would be a spark for violence.

There are also signs that Hamas might seek to channel public anger into religious fervor, a tactic that served the group well during the current Palestinian uprising, or intifada. Although the group insisted during the election campaign that it would not try to impose Islamic law or strict Muslim practices on other Palestinians, a Hamas lawmaker last week put forth a plan to set up local “advisory boards” to rule in disputes, using the precepts of Islam as a guide.

Another source of tension is the level of misery in Gaza, particularly in the north, where near-constant Israeli artillery barrages have been directed at Palestinian militant groups that use farming villages as staging grounds for firing homemade rockets at Israel.

In the weeks since Hamas took power, about two dozen Palestinians have been killed by Israeli artillery fire and airstrikes in Gaza. Many were militants who were specifically targeted, but some were civilians, including at least three children. Scores of others have been injured, and small-scale farming in northern Gaza has been devastated.

Israel has defended the artillery fire as a necessary defense against the daily rocket attacks targeting Israeli towns and collective farms close to the Gaza border. Human rights groups say the toll being exacted in Gaza is disproportionate to the threat posed by the crude rockets, which rarely cause deaths or injuries.

Hamas’ short tenure has brought the strongest Israeli warnings yet that a ground offensive in Gaza could be an option if the Palestinian rocket fire cannot be halted by other means. Israel withdrew troops and Jewish settlers from the territory last summer.

A senior Israeli commander, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, was quoted Friday in the Maariv newspaper as saying Israel was prepared to take “all steps, including occupying the Gaza Strip.” Israel has dropped leaflets over northern Gaza telling residents that the rocket-firing militants -- and, by implication, a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority that refuses to act against them -- are to blame for their suffering.

“I blame the Israelis and the militants both,” said Jamila abu Rabea, a 48-year-old Palestinian mother of eight who was seriously injured when a shell landed near her house this month in the village of Beit Lahiya. “We just want to live in peace and safety.”