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Hamas: An Islamist party tries to regain its luster

Living conditions in Gaza have deteriorated under Hamas rule, potentially leaving the Islamist militant group on the hook for rampant unemployment and other societal problems.

Hamas has refashioned its government in an apparent bid to adapt to the sweeping changes in the Arab world and bolster its support among Gazans who, six years after bringing Hamas to power, are largely disillusioned and desperate for better lives.

Over the weekend, the Islamist rulers of Gaza replaced seven of their 14 government ministers, including those in charge of housing, justice, and finance, in what officials and analysts say was a move to put more popular, competent officials in power.

“I believe the reshuffle is fully related to the results of recent elections of Hamas political bureau that brought new faces to the Islamic movement’s leadership,” says Naji Shurrab, political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “So they are now exchanging roles of those who have spent long years in the leadership of the movement and the government with those who now enjoy a big support in the movement.”

A United Nations report released last week warns that Gaza’s numerous longstanding challenges could reach a crisis point within less than a decade, as its bulging youth population matures. Already, at least 90 percent of Gaza’s water supply is unsafe to drink, according to World Health Organization guidelines; 85 percent of schools are running double shifts; unemployment is nearly 30 percent; and the territory’s population is set to grow from 1.6 million to 2.1 million people by 2020. 

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“My seven kids don’t receive proper health education and services. Electricity is always cut off and we can barely get clean water at home. I spend 50 shekels per month [about $12] on buying drinking water. I’m very worried about the future of my kids who live in very poor conditions,” says taxi driver Mohammed al-Gharabli from Gaza City, who says he makes 30 to 40 shekels a day. “These kids must be cared of by the government. They should have clean water, electricity, and good health and education systems. Poverty cannot make brilliant future for the new generations.”

Compounding the situation are tight Israeli restrictions on imports and exports from the territory, which is host to numerous jihadist groups that threaten Israel’s security. Israel claims that its blockade of Gaza, which began after Hamas seized full control of the territory, has ended, but Gazans still refer to the restrictions as a siege.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said that Sunday’s shake-up was aimed at “ending the [Israeli] siege and easing the problems of citizens, especially with regard to electricity and water.”

But as long as tight Israeli restrictions on the coastal strip continue, the Hamas leadership will remain limited in what it can deliver to its citizens. 

“The government’s claim that this reshuffle is meant to end the blockade and reconstruct Gaza could be true because the government cannot be successful unless the blockade is over,” adds Professor Shurrab. 

A barrier to Palestinian reconciliation?

Many Gazans today blame not only Israel, but also the split between Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah, for the lack of improvement in living conditions. Hamas violently ousted Fatah from Gaza in 2007, and they have yet to fully reconcile, with Hamas ruling the coastal Palestinian territory and Fatah dominating the Palestinian Authority (PA) that governs the West Bank.

“I don’t think anything will change as long as there are two governments and our leadership is divided,” says Nemer Abu Shaaban, who has yet to find a job after graduating three years ago from Al-Azhar University in Gaza with a degree in accounting. “My life is meaningless. I cannot get married. I can’t have a house and make a family…. Gaza is unlivable.”

Hamas leaders harshly criticized PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision earlier this year to reshuffle the PA cabinet before the two sides were reconciled, leaving Hamas without a say in the appointees. But after their own shake-up this weekend, Hamas officials were quick to deny that the move signaled a deepening divide between the two rivals.

Salah al-Bardwail, a Hamas leader and member of parliament in Gaza, says that the new Hamas cabinet is temporary and would be dissolved once reconciliation is achieved – a step that would allow for a Hamas-Fatah unity government once again.

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“The reshuffle can never be an obstacle to unity, and it will be null and void when reconciliation is achieved,” says Mr. Bardwail. “The main goal of the new shake-up is improving the performance of the government through appointing professional ministers. We assure our people that we have always been supporters of national unity, and we urge Fatah not respond to the Israeli demands that hold off the achievement of national reconciliation.”

Response to the Arab spring

But the Hamas cabinet shuffle was not purely an internal move. Coming after 18 months of upheaval in the Arab world, Prime Minister Haniyeh said it would give the movement “an opportunity to deal with these changes” in the broader Middle East.

“I think what they are predicting is that following the [US] election, assuming that Obama will be the president, something will move on the Palestinian front since almost everywhere in the Arab world, there have been some dynamic developments,” says Shaul Mishal, coauthor of “The Palestinian Hamas” and a professor of government at Tel Aviv University. “They assume that they have to be ready for such development. They have to find a way to balance power within the organization.”

Already, Hamas appears to have shifted its alliances somewhat, decamping from an increasingly violent Syria earlier this year and championing the antiregime protests, thus essentially writing off the support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Qatar has pledged a quarter billion dollars to help rebuild Gaza after a brief 2008-09 war with Israel. And European and Arab nations have pledged to raise funds for a major desalination plant designed to help address Gaza’s water shortages.