Hamas consolidates its grip on Gaza as reconstruction stalls

AP News
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Posted: Apr 14, 2015 11:04 AM
Hamas consolidates its grip on Gaza as reconstruction stalls

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Eight months after a ruinous war with Israel, the reconstruction of Gaza has barely begun, and the Islamic militant group Hamas remains entrenched despite expectations that it cede some of its power to West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The logic was that the Western-backed Abbas would be a more effective and credible conduit for aid. In addition, with Abbas wielding some control in Gaza, including at border crossings, Israel and Egypt might have been more likely to ease their blockade of the territory, letting in more goods.

Instead, each side has protected its own turf — Hamas in Gaza and Abbas' Fatah party in the West Bank — by clamping down on dissent.

Aid agencies and analysts say that prospects for recovery have been hampered by the political wrangling from Hamas and Fatah, the continued embargo and a slow response from donor countries.

Conditions in Gaza, meanwhile, are deteriorating. The Association of International Development Agencies said in a report issued Monday that partially damaged apartments are being repaired, but none of more than 12,000 destroyed homes has been rebuilt. About 100,000 displaced Gaza residents still live in classrooms, tents or rented apartments.

The situation has heightened tensions and dissatisfaction among the 1.8 million Gazans, who have endured both the blockade and three wars with Israel since Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007.

Politicians have delivered only slogans and not relief, said Sufian Wadiya, 36, who has been living with his wife and nine children in a U.N. school since his home was destroyed. "There are no signs of good solutions," he said.

A March poll by the independent Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that more than 60 percent of the respondents in the West Bank and Gaza are dissatisfied with the Abbas-led government of independent experts which was formed under a Fatah-Hamas deal last year to administer both territories, but never took hold in Gaza.

Support for Hamas is also slipping slightly from a postwar high, although the group still received 39 percent backing to Fatah's 36 percent, according to the survey of 1,260 people in the West Bank and Gaza, with an error margin of 3 percentage points. Sixty percent in Gaza said they are dissatisfied with the results of the war.

Hamas insists it won the war, even though the fighting killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, along with 72 people on the Israeli side, and it agreed to halt rocket fire on Israel even while failing to shake off the blockade.

Border restrictions largely remain in place, with the vast majority in Gaza unable to travel or trade. Under a U.N.-brokered postwar arrangement, Israel allows the import of some cement and steel for reconstruction, easing restrictions imposed to prevent Hamas from diverting the materials for military use.

The new mechanism has made cement available to repair tens of thousands of homes, but many homeowners cannot afford it, said the aid agencies' report. The groups urged the world to follow through on $3.5 billion for Gaza aid that was pledged six months ago, saying only $945 million was released so far.

Under the Fatah-Hamas unity deal reached a year ago — before the Gaza war —the Abbas-led expert government was to take over from Hamas and prepare for elections in Gaza and the West Bank. This was to relieve Hamas — which has been shunned internationally as a terrorist group and strapped financially after Egypt's dismantling of profitable Gaza smuggling tunnels — of the costly burden of governing.

Forming a "government of national consensus" assumed greater urgency after the summer war, in which Israel bombarded Gaza to halt years of intermittent rocket attacks, while militants fired thousands of rockets at Israel.

Yet the new Cabinet was quickly paralyzed by power disputes. Abbas sought complete control, while Hamas wanted to keep its security forces and civil servants in place.

Fatah alleged that Hamas wanted Abbas to serve as a figurehead to attract foreign aid and help solve the group's money woes. At the same time, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and West Bank-based members of the new Cabinet rarely visited Gaza, prompting complaints of neglect.

Each side blamed the other for the paralysis.

"There is no serious progress, no serious initiatives, or solution how to get out from the bottleneck," said Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, in an interview.

With the unity deal faltering, Hamas and Fatah are silencing dissent, though watchdogs disagree whether rights violations — a problem in both the West Bank and Gaza since the 2007 split — have increased or remain steady.

In Gaza, Fatah activists have been detained at Hamas security compounds for hours at a time and beaten or threatened, with 25 cases reported this year, human rights monitors said.

In the West Bank, Abbas' security forces have arbitrarily arrested Hamas activists, including several dozen in recent weeks, the monitors said. West Bank police spokesman Adnan Damiri said those detained were suspected of money laundering, weapons possessions and other crimes, and that all arrests were lawful.

In Gaza, Ziyad Mattar, a Fatah organizer, said he was held for several hours by Hamas in January. He said interrogators put a sack over his head, forced him to strip to his underwear in a cold room, and beat him with clubs. He said there were more blows whenever he refused to answer to a woman's name his jailers had mockingly given him. Fifteen other Fatah activists were detained in the same sweep, rights monitors said.

"They (Hamas) don't want the existence of opposition voices," said Fatah activist Maamoun Sweidan. This month, Hamas security closed his office. Previously, he was detained for five days and gunmen fired at his car, wounding two companions, he said.

Hamas blames Fatah infighting for some attacks, including explosions outside homes of Fatah officials in November, but has not shown evidence.

Meanwhile, Hamas is moving forward with efforts to impose its fundamentalist version of Islam on already-conservative Gaza. It's pushing for stricter gender separation, trying to make headscarves the unofficial norm for women, and has pressured cafe owners to discourage women unaccompanied by men from smoking water pipes.

Anti-government demonstrations are rare in Gaza despite widespread grumbling; the Palestine Center poll indicates only one-third of residents in Gaza and the West Bank believe they can criticize their governments without fear.

In February and March, club-wielding Hamas police broke up protests of daily power cuts — a crippling constant of Gaza life — in the southern village of Khuzaa and in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City.

Khaled Abu Mughasib, a journalist who saw the Zeitoun protest, said he was later detained and beaten by police searching for mobile phone footage of the incident.

Hamad, the Hamas official, denied his movement has created an atmosphere of fear. "Every day, people criticize Hamas in their articles ... in their talks," he said.

Hamas also pointed to last week's leadership election in the Gaza lawyers' union, a rare vote in a professional association, as evidence of free expression. On election day, many lawyers wore yellow Fatah scarves draped over their lapels. After nightfall, Fatah activists danced on chairs to celebrate a landslide.

Some argue that despite such gestures, Hamas is not willing to give up any part of the mini-state it has built.

"There is no indication that Hamas is going to change or cede power," said Gaza analyst Mkhaimar Abu Sada.

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Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.