The invitations described it as an opportunity for the “notable people” of Gaza to meet their prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who was elected as Palestinian prime minister a year ago.
Dressed in a suit and tie and with a red and white keffiyeh draped over his head and shoulders, Haniyeh spoke for an hour to an audience of Palestinian newspaper editors and local figures in Gaza City this week. He condemned Israel and the West for failing to give his government a chance, but said he would not stand in the way of peace negotiations. Then he sat back to listen to his audience. A year ago on Wednesday large numbers of Palestinians turned out at the polls to bring Hamas into government for the first time. The change marked a breakthrough for political Islam in the Arab world.
One year on, hopes for a significant change in their fortunes have, for many Palestinians, turned into disillusionment. Most questions at the meeting highlighted the deep and widespread anxiety that society was sliding into factional conflict.
More than 60 Palestinians have been killed in recent weeks in fighting between Hamas and its political rival, Fatah. Another three were injured this week in a gunfight in Beit Hanoun.
At the meeting, the first man to the microphone shouted: “If this civil war carries on it will destroy everything. Why don’t we use the courts instead of killing people involved in killing?” The crowd applauded.
A second man said Haniyeh should put more effort into the struggling negotiations between Hamas and Fatah, to form a coalition with a political programme that might lift the economic boycott which Israel and the West imposed after the formation of the Hamas government.
“Why don’t the Palestinians speak with one voice and go to the world and ask for a state?” suggested another speaker. “We are paying the price of the differences among us.”
By any account the past year has been particularly hard for the Palestinians. According to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, 660 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces — many during a series of military incursions into Gaza — and 292 houses were demolished, again mostly in Gaza. The group said 17 Israeli civilians and six members of the security forces were killed by Palestinians last year. At the same time, an economic crisis has driven up unemployment and pushed two-thirds of the population below the poverty line.
The question now is how much Hamas is held responsible for the crisis of the past year. Ali Badwan, a Palestinian economist in Gaza, said Israel and the West were to blame, but that Hamas also bore responsibility. “For me, after one year they have failed and they have to change and eliminate the mistakes they made before. They don’t recognise the change from being a resistance movement to being in power … and having to deal with the international community.”
Many at the senior levels in Fatah are convinced that electoral support for Hamas has sunk. Opinion polls reflect that — although a recent poll also showed that the popularity of the Palestinian President and Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, was fading. Fatah has barely begun to tackle the problems of corruption that cost it so many votes last year. Nevertheless, Abbas has warned that if talks on a coalition government fail he will push ahead with his threat to call early elections. An alternative plan has him avoiding elections but declaring an emergency and appointing caretaker governments.
Hamas, however, still has a large number of loyal supporters, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and a highly organised political machine. The movement has said it will boycott any early elections. It argues that concessions to the Israelis in the past have failed to produce a Palestinian state. That hardline position still has resonance among a peopleÂ living their 40th year under military occupation.
As Nihad Sheikh Khalil, a lecturer in history at Gaza’s Islamic University, put it: “In the past the Palestinian leadership gave Israel recognition and didn’t get anything in return. Why should they recognise Israel now?”
And yet, aside from party politics, opinion polls also consistently show significant numbers of Palestinians in favour of restarting peace negotiations to secure a two-state solution that would see Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side. On the street, people frequently say security and economic prosperity are their first demands.
There is a bloc of undecided voters in the Palestinian electorate, about 10% by some counts. Many of those voted for Hamas last year. Yet polls show they may not be so quick to support Hamas at the next election. The perception of entrenched corruption remains and any achievements count for little in the face of the suffocating economic and security crisis.
Earlier this month, Khaled Meshal, head of the party’s ruling political bureau, described Israel as a “reality”, though he said he would not formally recognise the country, and wanted a Palestinian state on the territory occupied by Israel in 1967. Hamas leaders have also offered a long-term truce with Israel, for five years or longer.
Raji Surani, a secular, leftist lawyer who runs the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, said he believed Hamas was ready to accept a Palestinian state on land occupied in 1967, and said it had been a mistake to boycott the government. But in the past month the possibilities offered by a new government have been losing ground to fears over the factional fighting that has taken hold on the streets of Gaza, he said.
“They have lost support from the grey area of voters. People tolerated the economic problems for a long time and didn’t punish Hamas. But now they are scared to death. We can tolerate anything except this internal conflict.” — Â