This is the entrance to the Gaza Strip: a 250-metre long causeway of exposed concrete slabs about five metres wide, surrounded by barbed wire, CCTV cameras and motion sensors, and closely monitored by remote-controlled machine guns mounted on the huge concrete walls that mark the border around the Erez Crossing Terminal. This awful corniche, a fitting introduction to the physical and social isolation inside Gaza, traverses a deep buffer zone that separates the Israeli military and border police at Erez from the Hamas border guards, who maintain their own checkpoint 500 metres away. It's difficult to coordinate along a border when neither side recognises the other's right to exist - but determining exactly who gets to make the harrowing walk between the two checkpoints is as close as these two belligerents come to cooperation. The area leading up to the Israeli fence is filled with huge piles of shattered concrete, twisted rebar, broken metal door and window frames - the remains of warehouses, factories and Palestinian Authority customs offices built in a more optimistic era and long since flattened by dozens of Israeli incursions. What was once a sign of a developing peace has now been turned into a wasteland of rubble, guarded on one side by Islamic radicals and on the other by deadly machine guns operated by teenaged conscripts in a far-off control room. But what looks like rubble to most of the world remains precious in Gaza: the Israelis haven't allowed rebuilding supplies like concrete and steel into the strip for several years. Some of Gaza's poorest residents support their families by sneaking past the Hamas checkpoint near the border, at the risk of being arrested - or shot and killed by Israel's robot machine guns - to gather up broken concrete they can sell to their homeless neighbours. It would be hard to find a better metaphor for life in Gaza than this walkway at Erez: a scorching hot concrete slab that's hard to enter and harder to leave, littered with rubble and jammed uncomfortably between Israel and Hamas. Despite a long and proud history of resilience, the people of Gaza - who have endured for decades against their own leaders, against Israel's policy of collective punishment, and against the apathy of the international community - appear today to have given up any hope that life will return even to the semblance of normalcy enjoyed by their still-occupied cousins in the West Bank. United Nations statistics on the economic and social conditions inside Gaza are bleak: more than half the working population is unemployed; the vast majority of those who do draw paycheques are employees of the deposed Fatah-backed government in Ramallah. They are paid, in other words, not to go to work - in the eyes of the Palestinian Authority, showing up to work at a Gaza ministry is tantamount to treason. Hamas, for its part, can barely afford to pay its own employees, so it has little capacity to reward the PA civil servants willing to cross the virtual picket line and report for duty. If the humiliation of chronic unemployment, or being paid to not work, isn't enough, with a widespread travel ban on Palestinians except in rare medical cases requiring Israeli help, no one ever gets to leave this tiny patch of sand along the sea. And with meager wages supplemented by humanitarian rations, people aren't starving. Instead they seem to be losing any sense of hope and increasingly, according to social workers, smugglers and even the police, turning in massive numbers to cheap narcotic tablets smuggled through tunnels from Egypt. A sense of lethargy and hopelessness now pervades almost every aspect of life here.
The road to Gaza's present misery began, as many things do, with an election. In 2006, Palestinian voters rejected the corruption, nepotism and incompetence of the long-ruling Fatah Party and elected Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement - surprising no one except the US State Department, which had brushed aside Israeli concerns that Hamas would prevail in a fair election. The Hamas election campaign had two planks. The first was opposition to corruption. In Gaza, discontent was focused on the gangster rule of the local Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, which by 2006 had turned Gaza into an unstable collection of competing resistance groups, security services, police forces and clan militias. Foreign journalists and aid workers were regularly being kidnapped, huge sums of money kept disappearing into the coffers of the Palestinian Authority (and, presumably, into the pockets of its officials in Ramallah) and the overall sense was that the opportunity offered by the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 was being lost amid internal strife and large scale theft. The second, which attracted less attention from voters at the time, was continuing resistance to Israel and a rejection of the peace process that began with the 1993 Oslo Accords. Putting an end to corruption and nepotism while mounting an effective military resistance to Israel was an ambitious agenda, to say the least: few other Arab regimes have managed to accomplish even one of these goals. But Hamas has shown little inclination to publicly abandon either of these ambitions, and reconciling these two directions - good governance and military resistance - has proven to be a challenge Hamas is ill-prepared to surmount. In the four years since the Hamas election victory, the people of Gaza have suffered through a series of crises. First, the international community refused to recognise the results of the election it had imposed, sparking an 18-month-long power struggle that pitted factions loyal to Dahlan and Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas, and which came to an end only in the summer of 2007, when Hamas dealt Dahlan and Fatah a decisive defeat and took full and unquestioned control of Gaza. Adding to the misery, in a 2006 joint operation with two other smaller militant groups, Hamas kidnapped Gilad Shalit, a corporal in the Israel Defense Forces, from just outside the security fence, leading to a major military invasion and a backbreaking embargo of virtually all consumer goods and travel in or out of Gaza by its residents. These draconian measures, along with continued military action by both sides, led to a campaign where Hamas and its allies fired thousands of homemade rockets into southern Israel, finally provoking another large- scale invasion, Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008, which killed more than 1,200 people and further degraded Gaza's already crumbling infrastructure. Since then, the Palestinian government has been split: Hamas rules Gaza, while the international community and Israel ignore them, preferring to deal instead with the Palestinian Authority headed by Abbas in the West Bank. But the campaign to weaken Hamas's grip on Gaza - which has employed economic deprivation and military force - has done little to hurt Hamas, and its political opponents inside Gaza say the Islamic Resistance Movement treats them no better than the Israelis once did. Mkhaimer Abu Sada worked as a Fatah political official in Gaza before Hamas took power in 2007. While most of his comrades fled the territory in fear - either into Egypt or, with Israeli help, via the Erez Crossing - Abu Sada had enough friends on the Hamas side to remain, and today he's one of the few independent political analysts left in Gaza City. As we sat over coffee on a sweltering evening as much of the city lay dark after the only working electrical plant ran out of fuel in an three-way Israel/Fatah/Hamas billing dispute, he explained that the campaign to weaken Hamas has done just the opposite. "Oh, they are in total control of the situation in Gaza," he said. "In 2006, when they started taking over, their fighters numbered between five and six thousand men. Now they have at least 25,000 paid employees of their ministries acting as police, security and intelligence services with another 10,000 members of the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades [the Hamas military wing]." "The Americans, Israelis and Fatah simply cannot accept this simple fact: that for now there is absolutely no way anyone can beat Hamas," Abu Sada said. "And the more they try, the more they isolate the people of Gaza, the stronger the militants and Islamic movements get." But despite solidifying its control over large sections of the official government and economy, which Hamas controls by maintaining strict management of the hundreds of tunnels that import goods and weapons to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli embargo, the group has seen its support among the Palestinians collapse even as its control tightens. "We are under occupation," said Abu Mohammed, a secular businessman with close family ties to the old Fatah security services. "After the takeover, people thought it might get better if the religious guys were in charge of the money, that security would improve and corruption would end. But they're just as corrupt: If you're not in Hamas, you get nothing. If anyone does anything, they are arrested, tortured or killed. Just like with the Israelis. Except the Jews always give you a lawyer."
Anger with Hamas is not limited to secular supporters of the Fatah government in Ramallah. Militants devoted to violent resistance say they feel betrayed by what they call an epidemic of corruption - springing from Hamas's control of the illegal tunnel economy - and by Hamas's refusal to sanction military operations against Israel from Gaza. Islamic Jihad, once the closest ally of the Hamas military wing, now refuses to call their former brothers-in-arms resistance fighters. According to Abu Musab, a top Islamic Jihad commander in the Rafah refugee camp, Hamas has failed at governance and resistance alike. "There's no government in Gaza," he said flatly. "We're under Israeli and Hamas occupation." "They are as big harami as Dahlan," he said, using the Arabic slang for "thieves". "They used to be mujaheddin, but today they are fat millionaires with nice cars," he added, pointing to his flat stomach. "Look, you can either be a millionaire or you can lead a resistance. But you if you take the medical aid sent by Europe to help the poor people of Gaza and sell it in your own pharmacies to make money for yourself and the government, you can't have both." At this point he pulled a packet of antibiotics from his pocket; it is stamped: "A gift of the people of Norway. Not for resale." "I just bought this from a Hamas-run pharmacy here in Rafah for my son," he said. "I had to go to a Hamas pharmacy to make sure the pills weren't fake or made from poor materials in Egypt. If you want real medicine, you have to buy the aid Europe sends us." "People are very angry. They have no money, no lives, no jobs and not even useful resistance against the enemy of Israel," he said. "People will try and get rid of Hamas but right now they can't because it's too strong." Abu Saba, the Gazan political analyst, said that two major events had negatively reshaped public opinion of Hamas - and in both cases, he says, the damage to Hamas was self-inflicted. "Things first started getting out of control in November, 2007 after Hamas took total control of Gaza earlier that summer," he said. "There was a legal rally by Fatah supporters on the anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death to honor their leader and to complain that Hamas was violating human rights promised under the constitution of the Palestinian people." He pauses for a moment and looks around the café nervously before going on. "It was the biggest protest in the history of Gaza, bigger than the largest protests during the Intifada," he continues. "It got out of control when the Hamas police told everyone to go home." This sparked a crackdown on political dissent throughout Palestine that continues to this day, with Hamas harassing and jailing Fatah supporters in Gaza and Fatah doing the same to Hamas supporters in the West Bank. The second major blow to Hamas's standing among Palestinians, according to Abu Saba, was the Israeli invasion of Gaza that began at the end of 2008: "When the war broke out people banded together to survive," he says, "but after the war most people thought Hamas had provoked it [with a resumption of rocket attacks] but they acted together to portray all of the population as victims of the invasion, which we were. But over the past 18 months, Hamas has fallen further and further in support." According to one human rights activist, who asked not to be named for fear of being killed by one side or the other, the root of the problem is that both governments - Fatah and Hamas - were born of what he called "original sin". "The Palestinian constitution protects the right of the people to peacefully assemble at anytime for political protest," he said. "It's a very progressive and wonderful law. But because Hamas can only control traffic and not how people meet privately, they decided to ban all public protests through decree of the police chief. And now they use the same tools that the Dahlan regime and the Israelis used to suppress the Intifada. Torture is a chronic problem here and on the West Bank, we have both sides using illegal and arbitrary detention and it's led to a systematic deterioration of human rights over the past four years." "The original sin was the refusal of the international community to recognize the Hamas victory in 2006 and the power sharing arrangement with Fatah that Saudi Arabia brokered in early 2007," the activist said. "When Hamas saw that no one would recognize their legitimate victory - and it was a fair election victory then - they decided not to bother trying to be just rulers." I ask him if that means the human rights situation was better under Israeli occupation that it is today for residents of both the West Bank and Gaza. "Why do you think I ask you not use my name? Yes, 100 percent yes," he said. "At least the occupation had a positive effect of drawing the Palestinian people together instead of dividing them. I now fear that we're seeing a systematic effort by Hamas and its religious backers to enter every component of society." Abu Saba described the Hamas response to the scorn of the international community as "furious". "They were offended because they'd been told to run in the elections, they ran in them and the elections were just ignored," he said. "Everything since that day has backfired on everyone. They squeeze Hamas and it gets stronger. And every time Ramallah arrests Hamas activists on the West Bank, it just becomes an excuse to crack down here. I think they'd still do it - Hamas has a black record on human rights - but the Israelis, Americans and Palestinian Authority never tire of giving them excuses."
To discover how Hamas and its legions of supporters see this situation, I paid a visit to two men I interviewed on previous trips to Gaza. Three years ago, they were high-level commanders in the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, but since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, both have become top police officials. I join them at a meeting honouring the Interior Ministry's police force in central Gaza City. The event was led by Abu Obeida al Jarrah, once the overall commander of the Qassam Brigades and the military architect of the 2007 takeover that forced Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. A stocky, bald man with a short beard, Abu Obeida once lived in the shadows of the Gaza Strip, hunted by Israeli drones while he directed a campaign of rocket attacks, kidnappings and bombings, rarely sleeping in one place and never using a mobile phone. When I interviewed him in the summer of 2007, he had never met a western journalist; he was, at that point, the most feared militant in Gaza. Today several bodyguards surrounded him as he inspected half a dozen Hamas members dressed like sailors from a 1940s musical, with ridiculous white bellbottom pants, green kerchiefs and white sailor caps. These men are in the navy, though it's not clear why Hamas even has such a force: the Israelis won't even let Gazan fishermen go more than a kilometre off the coast. But the kids have spit-shined shoes and ramrod straight backs as they proudly submit to their commander's inspection. He shook my hand and I complimented him on the condition of his naval forces, to which he responded with a cold, but wry smirk. Militant commanders who crave public attention tend not to last very long in the Gaza Strip, and while it's unclear if he's still considered a legitimate military target, I could tell he would prefer to be out of sight rather than schmoozing with "The Support Women of the Hamas Interior Ministry Police Force" After a few minutes watching al Jarrah shake hands and pose for pictures - which he would never have allowed a few years ago - I was greeted by Moataz Deeb al Khalidi, whom I met back in his days as a Qassam commander, and he pulled me aside for a chat. Khalidi, formerly a pharmacist by day and militant by night, is also an official member of the police force, in charge of community policing - which, considering the current vitriol directed at Hamas, hardly seems an easy job. As we sat in his office, he trid to explain how Hamas plans to deal with its sinking popularity. "We are a government elected by the people, but we have to respect the people who elected us," he said, as he signed a large stack of paperwork brought to him by an aide. "We have got to solve the problems between these two parties and act if our soldiers or police mistreat the people they are sworn to protect." When I asked about what many people see as an inherent conflict between the party's twin goals - setting an example of proper Islamist governance while simultaneously mounting a military challenge to Israel - he surprised me by quickly agreeing. "You are right," he laughed, and slapped the table. "There are far too many responsibilities of a government to also combine these responsibilities with resistance. That is why I have been asked to focus on a new programme of community policing that will combine the two." "When you can secure the population," Khalidi continued, "it gives a good picture of what the Resistance is. There's more than one kind of resistance, and just like a carpet needs strings of many colours in it, we need many types of colours to make a carpet out of Gaza." At this moment I realised that he was essentially describing a version of the American-style counter-insurgency theory, as deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan: secure the population to bolster their support for the central government, which will diminish their sense of being under occupation. It's an answer that wouldn't be out of place coming from an American official in Afghanistan, and when I asked Khalidi about the complaints from Gazans who regard Hamas as an occupying force, he didn't disagree or take offence. "We must have a lot of education within Hamas and the police on how to deal with people," he explained. "We had no experience in these areas before we came to power, so we are taking each step by step, but we are not at the top yet. The government has to respect everybody." "This is why we're pursuing this 'under the table' ceasefire with Israel," he continues. "We don't have anti-aircraft missiles to fight this enemy that is so strong, we only have prayers to Allah. But we can also show people that there are rules and they should not be broken or it hurts all of us. The people of Gaza need a break from this tension and we need the time to show them what our government can be." Later I described my conversation with Khalidi - and my quick chat with Abu Obeida - to Abu Nizar, a former Fatah security official. He laughed at the idea that these two famed Hamas fighters had turned their efforts to community policing: "Was Abu Obeida using community support when he was throwing Fatah officials off high-rise buildings in 2007? Are they working step by step to learn not to shoot people who disagree with them in the kneecaps? There's a video of Obeida himself executing five Fatah officials in the Jabaliya refugee camp after they surrendered - everyone in Gaza has seen it. So why should I ever think he's not going to one day come here and kill me?" Fatah, according to Abu Nizar, no longer poses any threat to Hamas rule in Gaza: it would be insane, he says, for Ramallah to order its cadres to stir up trouble here, given the level of control Hamas currently exerts over the population. "We'd be massacred in five minutes if we plotted against Hamas," he said. The real threat to Hamas, Abu Nizar continued, comes from its former militant allies. "The jihadis are much more powerful than they have ever been," he told me, echoing a warning that has been sounded by other experts on Gaza. "Salafists look at Hamas and think they aren't Islamic enough, because they ran in elections approved by Israel, they have failed to implement Sharia law, and they stop militants from attacking Israeli targets." "They can't challenge Hamas yet. But you can't hold them off forever. The most religious members want Sharia law and an end to this under-the-table ceasefire. They will never accept Hamas rule, but Hamas tries to appease them by banning women from smoking shisha and other moral laws. But we know appeasing al Qa'eda types never works, they'll just ask for more and more until one day they have the support to throw Hamas out. Just like what happened to Fatah - but it will be even worse for all of us."
Abu Nizar offered to introduce me to a few of these men who posed a real threat to Hamas, and the next night I found myself in a pickup truck with Abu Nizar and a man named Jihad - a member of one of Gaza's most feared militant groups, the Army of Islam. Al Jaysh, as it is known, was formed by a group of deeply religious students, inspired by the radical Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, the Palestinian jihadist Abdullah Azzam, who mentored Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and other adherents of the so-called "takfiri" school, who argue that impious Muslims should be punished for their apostasy. Jaysh al Islam came to the world's attention in 2007, when they kidnapped the BBC reporter Alan Johnston, who was held until Hamas pressure on the group led to his release. Israel blames the group for having plotted and carried out the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, with some support from Hamas. Jihad said that Jaysh fought alongside Hamas during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, sending a representative to a Hamas "operations room", where each militant group had a liaison. Al Jaysh is hardly a large organisation - it likely has less than 500 members - but its fighters are considered legendarily tough, even by Gaza standards. At this point we had been driving in circles for an hour: Jihad was determined to disorient me, but it's not an easy task in a territory as tiny as Gaza. I immediately recognized our destination: the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, the closest part of the city to the security fence, and a place where the fiercest fighting, and the highest number of civilian casualties, took place during Operation Cast Lead. Jaysh was at the forefront of the fighting here, and when I asked Jihad whether Hamas fighters had also participated, he scoffed. "When they saw 200 or so policemen were killed the first day in their bases, they all went to the tunnels," he explained. "Hamas knew Israel was coming to hurt them, so they sent all their men home or to safety. We had 18 martyrs in this neighborhood during the war and we're a small group. Qassam Brigades has more than 10,000 men all over Gaza, and they only had eight martyrs after the first day." "They hid while we died for the glory of God," he added. "Who are the real Mujihadeen?" He shut off the truck's lights and stopped the car. Fifty metres ahead of us, an iron gate was manned by two dark figures. Jihad spoke a few soft words into his walkie-talkie, the gate opened and the truck gently glided into a deserted field on the outskirts of an olive grove.
Even in the dark, I could see gunmen circling the vehicle with practiced movements. We waited while they set a security perimeter and with a motion, I was told to get out of the car, and surrounded by a dozen young men dressed in black salwar kameez. The men cloaked their faces in scarves, revealing only their eyes. They looked almost identical to the Taliban fighters I've met in Afghanistan. They may not be trained soldiers, but I could tell by the way they move and handle their weapons that they have plenty of combat experience. Carrying a motley but plentiful supply of assault weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, they hustled me into the cover of the olive trees, and explained nervously but politely that we had to move quickly because Israeli drones are circling overhead. Inside the olive grove, we found a spot to stand and talk safely, but there was a ferocious amount of noise coming from some nearby heavy machinery, whose engines were so loud we had to shout to be heard. When I asked about the noise, the faux-Taliban began to laugh.
One took me by the hand and led me quietly to the edge of the tree line. Not more than 100 metres away, Israeli bulldozers, guarded by massive Merkava tanks, were clearing brush from along the fence. I could see Israeli soldiers walking along, talking to each other, sharing cigarettes and guarding the area. "Past this tree and they'll see us and start shelling," my young masked guide explained, before returning me to Jihad and the rest of the men. "Hamas is our enemy," Jihad said amid nods from his colleagues. "They have killed our brothers on behalf of the Israelis and they protect Israel from our guns." He points to one young man who is clutching an M-16 rifle. "This boy," Jihad says, "was arrested by Hamas for trying to attack Israelis outside of Rafah camp." "They held me for 22 days," the boy says. "They beat me every day and when they released me, my father and I had to sign a paper that said if I attack Israel again, I will owe Hamas $22,000 or they will kill me." Mitchell Prothero is The National's Beirut correspondent.