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Hamas is failing its responsibility to Palestinians

Blinded by its narrative of violent resistance, Hamas is unable to see how clearly it has failed its own people.

By the time Khaled Meshaal dropped to his knees and kissed the ground in Gaza on Friday morning, the damage had already been done. Declaring himself a martyr-in-waiting, Mr Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, confirmed what many already knew: violence is the group's only vision for the future.

"I have been dreaming of this historic moment my entire life, to come to Gaza," he told flag-waving supporters. "I ask God to give me martyrdom one day on this land."

The Arab uprisings have reinvigorated Hamas regionally, and its recent showing against Israeli forces earned it acclaim from many Palestinians. In a few short days of war, the thinking went, Hamas pushed Israel in ways that the Palestinian Authority has never managed.

But this popularity masks the costs of a failed strategy. Blinded by its narrative of resistance, Hamas is unable to see how clearly it is failing its own people. Gazans are unemployed, angry and desperate. Certainly Israel's blockade is primarily to blame, but Hamas's rocket fire will do nothing to improve life in the Strip.

Hamas's leaders, in exile and in Gaza, have shown some signs of change. In August 2009, Hamas removed the head of the Salafi group Jund Ansar Allah when that group challenged Hamas's mandate. The move - while bloody - nonetheless suggested that Hamas understood armed resistance alone is not a long-term strategy.

But today, Hamas appears headed in the opposite direction. Hamas has been buoyed by Islamists regionally - particularly in Egypt - and the timing of Mr Meshaal's visit will bolster hard-liners. In the past Mr Meshaal and other politicians-in-exile have favoured tacit recognition of Israel and reconciliation with Fatah. This was at odds with Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and his allies in Gaza. Hamas's exiled head, speaking of martyrdom on the prime minister's turf, will only undermine more moderate forces within the movement.

There are many to blame for the crisis in Gaza; Israel, with its policy of collective punishment, tops the list. But Mr Meshaal's latest move will not help. Had he and others focused on political compromise, rather than conduct the purge of Fatah members from the Gaza Strip in 2006, Palestinian politics would not be as divided as it is today. Both Hamas and Fatah have perpetuated a hostility that deeply harms Palestinian interests in the face of occupation.

If anything of value comes from Mr Meshaal's visit, let it be that he finally sees the failure of violence - measured by Gaza's desperate situation. Only when Hamas becomes responsible to its own people will there be any hope of life improving in Gaza.

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