Gaza in Limbo

In 2006, Palestinians voted for Hamas over “corrupt” Fatah. Now many Gazans regret their choice.

Laundry hanging in the Shati refugee camp. Click image to expand.
Laundry hanging in the Shati refugee camp

SHATI REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip—Ayman Hamad ekes out a living as a porter, wheeling suitcases along the passageway from the Erez crossing point between Gaza and Israel along the mile-long open-air passageway to the Palestinian side.

These days, he doesn’t have much work. The only Palestinians making the crossing are those going to Israel for medical reasons, and the only Westerners are journalists and NGO workers.

“Hamas is terrible for us,” he told me. “They only help those who support Hamas. I don’t support anyone—neither Hamas nor Fatah. I just want to take care of my own family.”

Open criticism of Hamas is growing in this densely populated strip of 1.5 million Palestinians. Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006 and then seized sole control of Gaza in June 2007, remains firmly in control of the police and security apparatus. But Israel’s boycott of Hamas, which Israel imposed after Hamas captured an Israeli soldier three and a half years ago, is making life in Gaza harder.

During last year’s war between Israel and Hamas, which left around 1,400 Palestinians dead along with 13 Israelis, more than 4,000 homes were completely destroyed, and about 17,000 were partially demolished. But there has been almost no reconstruction, because Israel refuses to allow cement and iron into Gaza, saying Hamas could use these materials to make weapons.

Shortages of consumer goods have been partially alleviated by a system of hundreds of tunnels dug under the border between Egypt and Gaza. Israel has turned a blind eye to the items—everything from car parts to cola—that are smuggled this way. But Palestinians here say the prices of the Egyptian-made goods are high and that the quality is inferior to what they used to get from Israel.

Now Egypt is building a wall that will reach deep underground and will cut off many of the tunnels, and Palestinians are bracing for more shortages.

“Egypt’s steel wall does not serve the interests of any Arab party,” says Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri. * “The Israeli occupation benefits from it, because it has killed the last lifeline keeping the Gaza Strip alive after two and a half years of siege.”

At the preschool she runs for 130 poor children in this refugee camp, Abir Salah, a tall, imposing woman, says she feels suffocated. Last summer, one of her sons, who lives in Croatia, got married. She and her daughter had their suitcases packed so they could attend the ceremony, but they were unable to get an Israeli permit to leave Gaza.

“We tried Hamas, but now we have to get rid of them and change them for someone else,” she said. “We’re tired of everything. And because of Hamas, the international community has imposed a siege on us.”

She then abruptly ended the conversation, saying she was worried that Hamas might hurt her or her children.

Despite the sense of anger and frustration, there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative political leadership. Many senior members of the Fatah movement fled the strip after Hamas seized sole control. Elections that were scheduled for this month have been put on indefinite hold.

Hamas won the election in 2006 mostly because the average Palestinian was angry with the rampant corruption of the ruling Fatah movement. Hamas’ slogan of “Change and Reform” resonated. But with daily life getting worse, some are calling for Fatah to return.

Taxi driver Iyad al-Shafi says that he voted for Hamas in 2006 but that if elections were held today, he would look for another party to support. “The truth is that Israel is the basis for all of our problems here,” he said. “And nobody likes Fatah because they’re corrupt. But when Fatah was in charge here, people were working and had money. There were no shortages, and, most important of all, we could leave Gaza.”

In an interview in his office in Gaza City, Hamas senior official Ahmed Yusuf insisted that the majority of the public still supports Hamas and its social and political goals. Yet he admits that Hamas would find it hard to win another election. “It’s because of the siege and all of the suffering of the people here,” he said. “Next time they might vote for somebody else.”

Correction, Feb. 10, 2010: This article originally misspelled Mushir al-Masri’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)