RAMALLAH // In crushing the rebellion by the Jund Ansar Allah group in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, Hamas has shown not only that it will not tolerate direct challenges to its rule over Gaza but how far it is prepared to go to preserve its authority. It has also again drawn a clear line distinguishing itself from movements such as al Qa'eda and other expressions of global Islamist militancy.
This was not the first time that Hamas acted with deadly force to quell those challenging its authority. In September 2008, Hamas forces moved with similar effectiveness against the Army of Islam group, affiliated to the powerful Doghmush clan. That move, it seemed, ended the influence of the big tribes in Gaza and also appeared to close a chapter of lawlessness in Gaza that had started with the fighting between Fatah and Hamas after the latter won parliamentary elections in January 2006.
Indeed, the one thing that Hamas can pride itself on after taking sole control over the Gaza Strip in June 2007 is the imposition of order on the streets. With Gaza under sanctions and isolated from the rest of the world as a result of Hamas's stand against Israel, it is also the main tangible achievement of its rule. It is therefore not surprising that Hamas should jealously guard it. The flaunting by Jund Ansar Allah members of their weapons, the takeover of a Gaza neighbourhood and its declaration of an Islamic emirate were all direct challenges to this order. Hamas officials said they had been trying for weeks to negotiate with the group, efforts that had intensified since Tuesday, but in the end had no choice but to enter into a confrontation.
There is no reason not to believe this. Hamas has regularly chosen negotiation over direct action with groups that continued firing rockets across the border with Israel even while Hamas was trying to maintain a ceasefire, both before and since Israel's onslaught in December and January. In many ways, Hamas is now facing a problem similar to one that Fatah faced (and never resolved) after signing the Oslo Accords and taking control of Gaza and Jericho in 1994. The political responsibility that comes with authority means that Hamas, just as Fatah before it, has to take into consideration the consequences of any headlong rush into armed confrontation with Israel. As such, Fatah's complaints that Hamas is being hypocritical by proclaiming it is wedded to resistance while in effect maintaining a ceasefire with Israel are somewhat justified.Unlike Fatah, of course, Hamas still holds off from direct political negotiations with Israel, something the Islamist movement presents as a form of resistance since the lack of progress in such negotiations is held out as evidence that Israel was never serious in the first place.
Nevertheless, Hamas is without doubt treading the same path that was supposed to have taken Fatah from a liberation movement to a political party engaged in state building. The failure of negotiations with Israel to secure statehood has left Fatah in a no-man's land where it is neither one nor the other, a source of many of that movement's ills. Only the international community's decision not to engage the Hamas government formed in March 2006 or the unity government formed in March 2007 has prevented the Islamic Resistance Movement from being further down that road.
By contesting parliamentary elections in 2006 and thus stepping into the breach of national politics, Hamas identified itself as a nationalist political movement with an Islamist bent, rather than a pan-national Islamist movement with regional or even global aims. The movement has always distanced itself from any targeting of foreigners, consigning its struggle to one with Israel. It has reached out, time and again, to the international community, even while it refuses to abide by international conditions that it feels would undermine its identity and circumscribe its ability to manoeuvre.
The move into national politics, however, has left a vacuum for smaller, more militant groups to step into. Hamas has accepted playing politics. Others that refuse this option are now left to organise outside both the main Palestinian movements. And as long as Gaza remains isolated and sanctioned, as long as Gazans are in effect treated as pariahs not only by Israel but by the world at large, there is fertile ground for such groups to mobilise the young and disenchanted in the name of ever more nihilistic expressions of their own powerlessness.
In the absence of an end to the siege on Gaza, Hamas has only two options for dealing with this trend: political accommodation or confrontation. In recent weeks, the government in Gaza has made some moves in the one direction, imposing a strict dress code on female high school students and trying to do the same for female lawyers. So-called virtue committees have been set up under the ministry of religious affairs that are tasked with advising Gazans on the "proper" Islamic way to live.
These are still small steps. The virtue committees, for instance, have no powers of enforcement and it is not yet at all certain that the legislation on lawyers' dress code will withstand the legal challenges now being mounted. They are certainly too small for groups such as Jund Ansar Allah, which deemed Hamas too liberal. And with followers of groups such as Jund Ansar Allah, which tried to attack a Gaza-Israel crossing two months ago on horseback in imitation of the Islamic conquests 13 centuries ago, Hamas may well find it has no option but direct confrontation.