x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Gaza resilience puts Hamas in strong position

After three-and-half years, the world may finally be coming around to the conclusion that Hamas is a reality that can be neither sanctioned nor bombed away.

RAMALLAH // This week marked two years since Hamas ousted Fatah-affiliated security forces to take sole control over the Gaza Strip. The day passed with little fanfare. Physically hemmed in, bombarded from air, sea and land and a diplomatic outcast, Hamas's time in charge of Gaza has not been a happy one. Nevertheless, the Islamic Resistance Movement has remained remarkably resilient and remains in undisputed control of the Gaza Strip. Now, with unity talks receiving some impetus from the new US administration, cracks are beginning to appear in the international community's refusal to deal with any Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

After three-and-half years, the world may finally be coming around to the conclusion that Hamas is a reality that can be neither sanctioned nor bombed away. Indeed, the brutal Israeli onslaught this year not only failed to dislodge Hamas from power, it saw the movement's popularity increase, specifically in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. The tight siege that Israel has imposed for more than two years on the impoverished strip's 1.5 million people has only helped engender an "us-against-the-world" mentality.

The highly unpopular division that was brought about by the Hamas takeover - with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah leader left in charge of Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza - has also not appreciably dented the Islamist movement's popularity, which has held steady, and even increased after Israel's offensive. Partly, this is a result of the perception that Hamas was never given a fair chance to rule after winning parliamentary elections in 2006. Partly it is a result of the lack of progress in the Annapolis process that Mr Abbas entered into with Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister. Every failure of the peace process has only borne out Hamas's position that negotiations with Israel are a waste of time. The election of Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli prime minister, has further bolstered that position.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas has succeeded to impose order on what were very chaotic streets before the takeover, something that has counted in the movement's favour even as Gazans have sunk ever deeper into poverty. The ability of Gazans to survive under the extremely straitened circumstances dictated by Israel's and, to a lesser extent, Egypt's closure, by digging tunnels for smuggling, using cooking gas to power cars and building mud brick houses in the absence of normal construction materials, has also won both Gazans and Hamas a certain amount of admiration, grudging or otherwise, both among Palestinians and more widely across the region.

Cracks are now beginning to appear in the international resolve to keep boycotting a movement that won a clear victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections. A stream of lower level European parliamentarians and other officials have made their way to Gaza over the past two years, but higher level officials are starting to come too, not least Tony Blair, the Quartet envoy, who made only his second visit to Gaza on Monday, and former US president Jimmy Carter who, unlike Mr Blair, has held several meetings with senior Hamas officials.

Certainly it seems that the Obama administration is serious about engaging its adversaries. Mr Obama's speech in Cairo was cautiously welcomed by Hamas. Moreover, the administration has reportedly sent signals to both Mr Abbas and Arab countries that it will not boycott a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas. This partly explains why the Egyptian-mediated talks, for so long stymied and lifeless appear in the past few days to have been injected with fresh impetus.

Indeed, on the day of the anniversary of Hamas's takeover of Gaza, Fatah and Hamas officials met in both Ramallah and Gaza City. For once, the negotiations were not fruitless, as faction leaders agreed to a mechanism to release prisoners belonging to the two factions. Cairo has set a July 7 deadline for concluding the unity talks. Should Hamas and Fatah take advantage of a changed international climate, the two-year deadlock in the internal Palestinian political situation may be about to end.