This seaside territory was abuzz with preparations for an elaborate homecoming ceremony, including a 21-gun salute, tearful family reunions and the largest stage ever built in the Gaza Strip in order to hold scores of Palestinian prisoners after their expected release Tuesday in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
But for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza and negotiated the swap with Israel, the hard part will be sustaining those high public spirits after the stage is dismantled and the decorative banners torn down.
The “Arab Spring” has upset the regional order, leaving Hamas feeling backdrafts of the winds of change.
Ties with key benefactors Iran and Syria are looking strained amid reports that Tehran recently slashed funding to Hamas. At the same time, the group appears to be scrambling to relocate its political headquarters out of increasingly unstable Damascus, where popular protests are threatening Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
Hamas has also seen its popularity plummet this year in Gaza and the West Bank, polls show. Palestinians criticize the group for its strong-arm rule over Gaza and confrontational stance toward the outside world, which fueled an economic boycott by the West and rigid restrictions by Israel on the movement of goods and people.
In a possible nod to democratic reforms being demanded throughout the Arab world, some members of Hamas, which won 2006 Palestinian elections, are calling for the group to hold its first open election in years for the Shura Council, a secretive leadership body that charts the group’s strategy. But such a step could expose internal tensions between moderates and extremists.
“They’re in a panic,” said Omar Shaban, head of the Gaza City-based think tank Pal-Think for Strategic Studies. “So Hamas is seeking to legitimize itself and become part of a bigger political system because it thinks that will make it more secure.”
The deal to release Shalit and the surprise reconciliation agreement reached in May with the rival Fatah party, which Hamas chased out of Gaza in a 2007 factional war, are reflections of such pressure, many say. In both cases, the deals were instigated by Hamas, which suddenly showed more flexibility than it had before.
Hamas leaders reject claims that the deals are signs of weakness. They contend that the Arab Spring will be a boon to the Palestinians’ pursuit of statehood, even if it requires them to alter strategy. They say the changes are designed to both weather — and exploit — regional changes.
“We face some big challenges,” said Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister of Hamas. “Hamas policies have had a big shift. We have to invest in the Arab Spring to get more fruits from it.”
He said Hamas took a significant step in 2009 when it endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state inside the West Bank and Gaza and announced it would cease attacks on Israel. (Hamas has twice broken that cease-fire by resuming rocket attacks on Israel. And it is still deemed a terrorist group by Israel and the U.S. for its refusal to renounce violence or acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.)
Hamad said the conflict with Fatah and Shalit’s captivity remained obstacles to normalizing relations with the Arab world and the West.
“This is a turning point for us,” he said in an interview in his Gaza City office. “It’s a big victory.”
Hamas leaders also hope the prisoner swap will boost sagging poll figures, particularly as Hamas and Fatah prepare for long-delayed elections, scheduled for next year. In September, support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank was 29% compared with Fatah’s 45%, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
Fatah’s rise in popularity has been aided by the campaign by its leader and Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to win Palestinian membership in the United Nations.
“In a way, the prisoner swap puts Hamas back in the picture and shifts the limelight from Abbas,” said Robert Malley, director of the Mideast program at the International Crisis Group.
For Hamas, the emotional lift of reuniting families should contrast favorably with Abbas’ more technocratic U.N. membership drive, which in any case is expected to fail in the face of a threatened U.S. veto in the Security Council. But it remains to be seen whether Palestinians will base their vote for parliamentary seats on the prisoner deal. Some have even criticized Hamas for giving up on its demand for the release of high-profile detainees such as Marwan Barghouti, who helped lead the last Palestinian uprising.
“Jobs and a better standard of living are more important to me,” said Islamic University student Maher Abdalla, 31, of Gaza City. He said he would vote for neither Hamas nor Fatah in the next poll.
Hamas’ search for new benefactors is also shaping its recent behavior. Though they publicly deny planning to leave Syria, Hamas leaders have visited Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Turkey, looking for new outposts. Hamas, which is a Sunni group, has been put in an uncomfortable position amid the crackdown against Syria’s Sunni majority by Assad, a member of a Shiite offshoot religious group. Iran, too, is a Shiite-run country, but it has long set aside sectarian differences with Hamas to fight Israel.
Some now see Cairo as an alternative benefactor for Hamas, particularly because the group is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has been rising in power since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted this year.
“But Hamas is finding that there is a price to pay for such a move,” said Shalom Harari, a former Israeli Defense Ministry advisor on Palestinian issues. The interim Egyptian government has played a key role in pressing Hamas to free Shalit and reconcile with Fatah, analysts say.
“I wouldn’t say this is making Hamas more moderate, but it could restrict its activities for a while,” Harari said. “But remember, they are just changing locations, not ideology. They might be more flexible on timing and message, but the final goal is still to eliminate Israel.”
Most believe Hamas won’t break ties with Iran and Syria but is searching for backup benefactors. Iran reportedly opposed the release of Shalit and has been disappointed that Hamas has refused to publicly stand behind Assad.
The cutoff of Iranian funds, which Hamas officials would not confirm, has contributed to a financial crisis in Gaza. Government salaries were halved in the summer and Hamas has imposed unpopular taxes on imported cars and rebuilding projects.
“No question they have to be worried and concerned about their Iranian connection,” said Aaron David Miller, former U.S. Mideast advisor and author.
Hamad, the deputy foreign minister, said ties with Iran were unchanged. But he expressed hope that the international community would recognize the efforts Hamas is making and reward it by easing the economic and political boycott.
“It’s time to stop thinking about Hamas as a terrorist organization,” he said. “We are interested in a calm and quiet situation. The politics of isolation has not been fruitful.”
It remains unclear whether Israel and the international community will be convinced. Just a few months ago a Hamas rocket hit a school bus in southern Israel, killing a boy. And Hamas leaders said recently that they would try to kidnap another Israeli soldier to free more Palestinian prisoners.
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli analyst who helped create a back channel between Israel and Hamas during the recent Shalit negotiations, said Israel could help promote better relations by easing its commercial blockade.
“Normalization will encourage moderation inside Hamas,” he said.