A Gaza businessman I met last week was happy to sit down over lunch and talk openly about his disdain for the Islamist group Hamas. “Of course I do not support them,” he told me. “They have not helped Gaza. They have harmed it.”
But when I asked him if he would do a radio and television interview, he said no. “Speaking out against Hamas is not smart,” he told me with a smile.
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After a month of war in the Gaza Strip that has left more than 1,900 Palestinians dead, according to Gaza’s health ministry, support for Hamas and the other armed factions fighting Israel remains high. But there are those who, in private at least, are critical.
The businessman said it’s clear that Hamas was firing rockets from populated areas, putting the lives of Palestinians at risk. Another man I met outside of Gaza’s main hospital a few weeks ago was angry that the leadership of the Islamist group did not accept an earlier ceasefire. His brother was injured in an Israeli attack he said could have been avoided.
But while there is criticism of Hamas and its tactics, I have not met a Palestinian in Gaza who does not support the "resistance" — the term commonly used to refer to those who fight against Israel for a Palestinian state.
There is unanimous support among Gaza residents for the end of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which limits the movement of people and goods out of the small coastal enclave. It has choked off the economy, by largely preventing Gaza businesses from exporting their goods to Israel, the West Bank and beyond. The vast majority if Gaza’s 1.8 million residents are unable to travel beyond Gaza’s borders.
In Gaza City’s main market a few weeks ago, I met Hanan al-Hadad, a mother of three who was shopping for food and clothing for her children.
When I asked her if she supported Hamas, she did not answer directly. “We hope the terms of the resistance are met and they lift up this siege and they open the border and we can live peacefully,” she said. Palestinians in Gaza use the word "siege" to refer to the various restrictions Israel has imposed on the coastal region, particularly on the movement of goods and people.
“Definitely there are some Palestinians who are sick, tired, exhausted of the four weeks [of] war and would like to see a ceasefire with any price. But the majority of the Palestinians would like to see an end to the siege,” said Mkhaimer Abusada, a political analyst at Gaza’s al-Azhar university.
Before the war in Gaza broke out, Hamas was isolated internationally, losing its main backers Iran and Syria. Egypt’s new government, viewing Hamas as a threat, took a hard line, shutting down the smuggling tunnels used to bring goods into Gaza. Militant groups also used the tunnels to smuggle weapons and supplies used in their fight with Israel.
At home, Hamas was unpopular in the eyes of many Gazans who accused the group of poor governance in the years since it seized control of Gaza in 2007. Financially, Hamas was broke and unable to pay the salaries of 40,000 government employees. There were allegations of corruption levelled against Hamas government officials, as well.
In June, Hamas gave up running Gaza, when it agreed to join a unity government after reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.
When the conflict with Israel began on July 8, Hamas began to ride a new wave of popularity, as Palestinians welcomed the fight against Israel. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers were killed and militants were able to use the tunnels that ran under the Gaza border to launch several attacks inside Israel.
Many Palestinians celebrated what they saw as a strengthened Hamas inflicting damage upon the much more advanced and mightier Israeli military.
But Avi Issacharoff, the Israeli military affairs analyst for the Times of Israel and Walla news, said Hamas needs to bring home from the truce negotiations underway in Egypt a tangible "win" — the lifting of the Gaza blockade or an airport or seaport for the coastal enclave.
“If they do not, at the end of this war — two months or six months after — they will not go back to the same bad place they were, but to a much worse place than they were on the popular level,” Issacharoff told me.
Rebuilding Gaza a true test for Hamas
Israel’s current war with Hamas is certainly the most deadly and destructive of the three conflicts fought with the militant group since 2008. Entire streets in Beit Hanoun, Shaja’ia, Khan Younis and Rafah have been flattened by Israeli strikes. The United Nations says more than 400 children were killed.
The Palestinian deputy prime minister, Mohammed Mustafa, estimated that it will cost at least $6 billion to rebuild Gaza.
“Once a ceasefire is reached, we will have to tackle the immediate problem of rehousing those who lost their homes," Mustafa told Reuters. "According to our estimates, they may number 400,000 people."
How quickly and effectively the rebuilding of Gaza proceeds will be a true test of Hamas.
“There are some Palestinians who are criticizing Hamas, who are speaking out against Hamas,” political analyst Mkhaimer Abusada told me. “But I think we will find more Palestinians criticizing Hamas when the war is over and if the rebuilding and reconstruction process takes a longer time than expected.”