Islamic state? Not yet

Ever since its bloody takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Hamas has seemed to be an existential threat to Israel. But on the dusty, chaotic streets of Gaza, after more than a year of isolation under Hamas rule, popular support seems thin.

Popular support seems thin after more than a year of Hamas rule

GAZA CITY — Mahmoud Zahar doesn't believe in evolution. And he has not evolved.

Mahmoud Zahar, co-founder of Hamas, speaks to the CBC's Terry Milewski in Gaza City. ((Stephanie Jenzer/CBC))

For Gaza, this could be a problem.

The fierce co-founder of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, a surgeon by training, spent 20 minutes after a recent interview with CBC News insisting that evolution is false.

After all, said Zahar, a donkey can eat shrubbery and survive, but a human cannot.

"So, a donkey is more evolved than a human? No," scoffs Zahar, seemingly satisfied that he has demonstrated the absurdity of Charles Darwin's theory. Allah, not evolution, made man, he says, and Allah has made Gaza Islamic.

"We are already an Islamic society," Zahar declares. "We are controlled by Islam in every quarter, every inch of our life."  

Not quite.

Aiming inward

Ever since its bloody takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Hamas has seemed to be an existential threat to Israel, ruling a new, Islamic state with its sword at the throat of the Jews. But on the dusty, chaotic streets of Gaza, after more than a year of isolation under Hamas rule, popular support seems thin.

CBC cameraman Samer Shalabi stands in the bombed-out stronghold of the Hilles clan in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City. ((Terry Milewski/CBC))

Few women are hidden under abaya, a traditional all-compassing garment. Most men don't wear beards. Both men and women dare to speak openly of what Hamas considers heresy — peace with Israel. And, while Hamas is maintaining a ceasefire with the Jewish state, its gunmen have been forced to aim inward — at their Palestinian rivals.

CBC News recently entered what is, theoretically, a closed military area in the grim Shejaiya section of Gaza City. This was the stronghold of the Hilles clan, one of Gaza's well-armed mafias, and it was recently the scene of the worst violence in Gaza since the Hamas takeover.

All the dead were Palestinian. Hamas used the minaret of the local mosque as a firebase in a bloody assault on the Hilles clan, many of whom are allied with the secular Fatah movement.

Eleven Hilles men were killed. Dozens of others ran for the border — the Israeli border. In a humiliating scene, wounded and terrified Hilles clansmen begged the Israelis to save them from Hamas. They were strip-searched, interrogated and treated in Israeli hospitals before being shipped to a refuge in the sweltering West Bank town of Jericho.

From his hospital bed in Ashkelon in Israel, Shadi Hilles said he had no choice but to flee. "If we try to go back to Gaza, they will hunt us. They will murder us."

The message of this bloodbath was clear: Hamas is tightening its grip on Gaza and rivals had better be silent.

Speaking out against Hamas

And yet they are not. In the sandy back alley behind the Hilles stronghold, a 25-year-old woman from the clan listens while a CBC crew conducts interviews about the aftermath of the battle.

Someone says that Hamas is firmly in control.

A Gaza woman, left, tells the CBC: 'We live in a prison. If we want to criticize, it's forbidden. ... It's our neighbours who are oppressing us.' ((Terry Milewski/CBC))

"No, Hamas does not control Gaza," she cuts in. Waving her finger, surrounded by children, she issues a challenge. "All our young men will be back. The children will grow up and fight for revenge. The most important thing is to take revenge."

Considering the neighbourhood is full of Hamas gunmen, it's a gutsy statement. But she is not alone in voicing opposition. In Gaza City's market square, a crowd gathers as people pour out their own anger about the siege to the CBC crew. Essentials are in short supply, they say.

"We have no jobs, no fuel," says one man, "and the borders are closed."

A woman says: "Everything is expensive, we can't get medicines."

"We live in a prison," the woman's friend adds. "If we want to criticize, it's forbidden."

But she throws caution to the winds, her voice rising as she condemns the Hamas crackdown on its rivals in Fatah. "It's our neighbours who are oppressing us."

Nobody disagrees.

Even more striking is that people dare to speak openly of something that is heresy to Hamas — peace with Israel. Most adult Gazans can remember when it was possible to make a living by working in construction or agricultural jobs in Israel. No more.

A man waits his turn to speak and then lets out his rage.

"We want them to find an agreement with Israel so we can go and work in Israel," he says. "Everyone here wants to go to Israel to find a job. We want to live! We want to live!"

Israel's extinction Zahar's goal

But Mahmoud Zahar isn't going to evolve. For the ideologist of Hamas, whose son died in an Israeli air raid, the goal is the extinction of Israel. And he is unmoved by the world's rejection.

Trained as a surgeon in Egypt, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar says that Israel is a 'foreign body' in the Middle East, and would be rejected but for the 'immunosuppressant' support of the United States. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Hamas is boycotted as a terrorist organization not just by Israel but by the so-called Quartet that oversees the peace process: the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia. But it is these great powers, Zahar insists, who will adapt and change, not Hamas.

"Believe me, nothing is eternal. There will be a big change in the American administration, the Quartet, even Israel."

When he is asked, "You really believe that? You think they will change their view and accept Hamas?" he quickly shifts his ground.

"I'm not looking to accept Hamas!" Zahar says. "I'm looking to remove your aggression against the Palestinian people."

This, in a nutshell, is Gaza's problem. Instead of adapting to its environment, Hamas expects the environment to change. As long as Hamas threatens to destroy Israel, Gaza remains isolated and wretched. Many Gazans will blame Hamas as well as Israel.

So Hamas may have to keep its guns pointing inward.