Hamas, the Palestinian faction viewed by many in the West as a nest of terrorists and Islamic hard-liners, is battling a curious new epithet: moderate.
Fifteen months after a punishing Israeli offensive failed to dislodge Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip, rival resistance groups and some former supporters say the organization has become too political, too secular and too soft.
“People in the street say Hamas has changed,” said Abu Ahmed, spokesman for the military wing of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian armed group in Gaza that complained recently that Hamas had arrested four of its militants as they tried to attack Israeli soldiers near the border. “They’re paying a price for that. People need to know that Hamas is still committed to the resistance.”
As it struggles with tensions between its political and military wings, Hamas faces the classic juggling act of an armed resistance group that suddenly finds itself running a government rather than fighting to overthrow one. Some see a window for the West to reach out to Hamas moderates. But as it follows political and military paths at the same time, critics say Hamas is doing neither one particularly well.
To many in the U.S. and Israel, Hamas is hardly moderate. The group still refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and vows it will never give up violence as a tool against Israel’s occupation. The U.S. and Israel still label it a terrorist organization for its past use of suicide bombers.
But people in Gaza note that Hamas hasn’t fired rockets at Israel since January 2009 and has pressured other armed groups to follow suit. In January, Hamas shocked other resistance groups by issuing, for the first time, a written order that said rocket attacks were against the “Palestinian national interest” and threatening to arrest anyone caught in the act.
Instead of attacking Israel, Palestinian hard-liners said, Hamas has been fighting its own people: Islamic extremists in Gaza, including some disaffected Hamas members who pledge allegiance to Al Qaeda and accuse Hamas of selling out.
So far, the extremist groups, which on the Web accuse Hamas of being infidels and criminals, have been small and easily crushed by Hamas. But they are blamed for a string of recent bomb attacks in Gaza, some targeting Hamas security members’ homes, offices and cars.
An early sign of Hamas’ predicament came in August, when the leader of the so-called Army of God’s Helpers declared Gaza an “Islamic emirate” under his control. Hamas fighters killed him and about two dozen others in a fiery clash. This month, a new group announced it would exact revenge for that battle, saying it had organized 200 fighters to confront Hamas.
Jamil Mizher, leadership secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Gaza, said his group opposed the extremists’ agenda, but said Hamas has only itself to blame for their emergence.
“Suddenly Hamas moved to a political path,” Mizher said. “They used to support the resistance. Now, they fight against the resistance. So there is some kind of split in their ideas that has created an opening for these kinds of groups.”
He said Hamas’ main concern now appeared to be avoiding another clash with Israel that might threaten its survival. Israel has said it would hold Hamas, which took over control of Gaza in 2007, accountable for any rocket attacks, even those by other groups.
“It’s unacceptable and dangerous for Hamas to put new restrictions on our right to oppose the occupation,” Mizher said, adding that his group will continue to fire rockets. “They are just trying to protect their own heads.”
In what many here saw as a Hamas attempt to counter such criticism, Hamas claimed responsibility last month for killing two Israeli soldiers who were ambushed after crossing into Gaza. But according to Israeli and Islamic Jihad officials, Islamic Jihad conducted the operation and Hamas stayed largely in the background.
Some viewed Hamas’ execution last week of two suspected Israeli collaborators as an attempt by the group to demonstrate it still has a tight-fisted control over the strip.
At the same time, Hamas has courted officials from the U.S., Russia and Europe over the last year, seeking a relaxation of Western restrictions on humanitarian aid in Gaza. Hamas leaders have signaled a willingness to negotiate a long-term truce with Israel.
Robert Pastor, a Carter Center senior advisor who met with Hamas officials in Gaza this year, said the Obama administration and Israel should do more to encourage Hamas’ political engagement.
“The real tragedy is that we’ve had relative peace for the past year and no progress at all on negotiations,” he said. “Hamas is in this halfway world, with one foot in the arena of militancy and violence. With every day, it becomes harder for them to restrain the acts of violence from the other groups and, eventually, from themselves.”
Critics dismiss Hamas’ political overtures as camouflage, saying the group remains as violent as ever. The shift into politics reflects pragmatism, not moderation, they say, noting that Hamas still receives financial support and orders from Iran, has reassembled a vast stockpile of rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv and has been accused of torturing and executing its enemies.
Israeli analysts see the recent pause in Hamas attacks as a result of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, which killed about 1,400 Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes.
“It shows that the deterrence policy is working,” said Kobi Marom, a former Israeli army commander who now works as a security consultant.
For their part, Hamas officials insist there has been no shift in strategy.
“Hamas hasn’t changed,” spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said. “We are not more moderate. We’ve been moderate from the beginning. But because of the American arrogance, the international community does not hear us correctly.”
But on the streets of Gaza, where half the people are unemployed and more than 70% rely on international aid to survive, there’s a growing frustration.
Skeptics say Hamas has little to show for its political overtures. Israel and Egypt continue to impose tight restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza. Only a fraction of $4 billion in pledged international assistance has been distributed because Western governments won’t deal with Hamas until it recognizes Israel and renounces violence.
Many Gazans see little hope of resuming normal lives.
“If you look at all the suffering and destruction, I don’t think Hamas would win an election again,” Nidal Abed Rabo, 25, said. Two years ago, Rabo ran a cosmetics store. Now, he sells falafel from a street stand.
“If you choose to be a government, you have to deal with the international community,” he said. “Hamas can’t do that. They can’t be fighters and ministers at the same time.”