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August 27, 2014

Gaza's Fragile Unity

Jared Malsin
November 20, 2012

After five consecutive days of intense Israeli bombing and Palestinian rocket launches, Ebaa Rezeq, a young activist from Gaza known to be an outspoken critic of the Hamas government, appeared on Israel’s Channel 2 television for an interview.

Knowing Rezeq’s record of opposition to Hamas, Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan demanded, “Are you able to say it right now, that Hamas is leading nowhere, that there is no future to the Palestinians living in Gaza under Hamas regime?”

Rezeq replied, “I have to say that I do publicly criticize Hamas, as a regime, as an authority, as a political authority, as a political party. But at times like this, when we are targeted, and every single place, and every single individual is a target in the Gaza Strip, we all stick together.”

“In times like this,” she said, “Hamas is Gaza, and Gaza is Hamas.”

“I believe that in times like this we all support what they [the armed Palestinian factions] do, we all support the armed resistance, because eventually I think Israel is leaving us no choice. No choice whatsoever,” she added.

Passionate and articulate, Rezeq perfectly fits the profile of the revolutionaries who participated in the Arab uprisings that began in 2011. I met Ebaa in Gaza just before those revolts, at the end of 2010, after Hamas security forces broke up a protest she participated in.

Rezeq was one of the activists who joined the March 15, 2011, demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank demanding national unity and democratic elections to the Palestinian National Council. The protests failed to spark a full-scale uprising, but they served as a reminder that both the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Hamas faced publics who are upset about corruption, failing economies, and above all a lack of a plausible long term liberation strategy vis-à-vis Israel.

The 2011 uprisings placed Hamas in the awkward position of attempting to align itself with a wave of popular revolts while simultaneously clamping down on protests in Gaza. But despite the domestic crackdown, Hamas managed to emerge from 2011 in a stronger regional position
. Having cut ties with the regime in Syria, Hamas attracted political backing from new governments in Egypt, and Tunisia, while mitigating the loss of Iranian funding with revenue from the smuggling tunnels and investment from Qatar.

The regional arena is transformed, and the military equation is changed (with apparent new capabilities smuggled from Iran and Libya). Hamas has reactivated a pre-2011 narrative of armed resistance to Israel, a political framework that further marginalizes the Palestinian Authority and quiets domestic criticism.

Rezeq’s interview should give pause to anyone, including the interviewer, who holds the notion that major military action in Gaza will separate Hamas from its base of political power.

On the other hand it would be a mistake to assume, at this early juncture, that the current Israeli campaign will have any linear effect on popular support for Hamas. Though they might hold off for now, activists like Palestinian movement activists like Rezeq will continue to criticize the Gaza government, as will their comrades in the West Bank. No doubt many ordinary Gaza residents will continue to be disillusioned with the leadership.

It would also be a mistake to think of Hamas as a monolith. The movement is vast, encompassing political and military wings in the West Bank and Gaza, civilian charity intuitions, and political leaders incarcerated in Israeli prisons and exiled outside of Palestine. The group’s leadership is, in the words of seasoned Hamas observer Mark Perry
, “embroiled in a difficult debate” between Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and his allies in Gaza “who believe that the movement should align itself more closely with Iran and take a harder line on reconciliation with Fatah” and Political Bureau chief Khaled Meshaal who “has a more internationalist vision—and one that takes account of the shifts inside the Arab polity, and inside the movement itself.”

It is too soon to say how these internal divisions and the surrounding regional dynamics will play out amidst the violence on the ground. But going forward, we should not assume that Israel’s policies will have the desired effect on Palestinian politics. Nor should we assume that groups like Hamas, or the Palestinian public at large, think with one mind. Regardless, Hamas is not going away. The Israeli military leadership, who negotiated a prisoner swap and a series of ceasefires with Hamas in recent years, is aware of this fact.  

Jared Malsin is a graduate fellow in journalism and Near Eastern studies at New York University. He previously worked as the chief English editor of the Palestinian news agency Maan. On Twitter: @jmalsin.

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