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Gazans take Hamas victory claims with a grain of salt

December 02, 2012

JABALYA REFUGEE CAMP (Gaza Strip): Strung across chaotic streets and through mazes of yard-wide alleys, the iconic green flags of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, festoon the grey acres of cement-block buildings.

Here in the streets where Hamas was born a quarter-century ago, the public trappings of ascendant Islamist power are impossible to miss.

After prayers, men old enough to remember the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which began a decades-long occupation of Gaza, claim Hamas has finally won a fight with Israel and should now march on Tel Aviv.

But as the nervous ecstasy of conflict gives way to a grim status quo, there are already signs, even here, to suggest that any power Hamas has derived from its recent conflict with Israel is fading. The change in sentiment is coming gradually, along generational and gender lines, and suggests a limit to any political benefits for Hamas gained through armed conflict.

As older men speak of an imminent return to lost family land inside Israel, many younger men, who grew up in the bitter decades after the first Palestinian uprising, ask what precisely Hamas accomplished during the eight-day confrontation.

So, too, do some of this refugee camp’s women.

“What kind of victory?” asked Um Ram Abu Rokba, covered in pious, Islamic-style dress as she walked home from afternoon prayer. "They are lying to the people, it is a kind of blackmail."

As groups of kids gathered around her, Abu Rokba, who would give only her nickname, said, “The Jews are hurt, we are hurt. If they lose a child, they cry. If we lose a child, we cry. It is the same. My own wish is only peace and security.”

It is not the message of the Hamas leadership, as it prepares for an expansive celebration next month to mark the 25th anniversary of a movement classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States and Israel.

Facing an increasingly restless population in Gaza before the recent conflict, Hamas emerged more popular, although for how long remains to be seen.

Since taking full control of the strip after a brief, brutal fight with the secular Fatah movement seven years ago, Hamas has imposed, bit by bit, a form of Islamist rule under which many Gazans chafe.

But the recent wartime display of Hamas's new arsenal — with rockets that reached Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem — have boosted morale among some Gazans.Among the fading billboards remembering the deaths of Palestinians in past conflicts with Israel, new posters appear memorialising those killed in the latest one. Children pick through ruins of newly bombed houses, green banners marking the sites.

To Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas founder and the movement's foreign minister, the group’s performance proved decisively that only military action against Israel, rather than negotiations favored by Fatah and the United States, will secure a Palestinian state.

"The most important fact that has emerged from this is Hamas's ability to convince all Palestinians of our way," Zahar said in an interview. "We gave Fatah a full opportunity to implement its way, and it failed."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader, favours a two-state solution to the conflict that envisions a Palestinian state emerging in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war.

On Thursday, Abbas, in defiance of American and Israeli wishes, received United Nations approval for upgraded diplomatic status that in effect recognizes a Palestinian state in concept alongside Israel.

“This brings nothing to us except disadvantages,” said Zahar, whose home along a sandy street in Gaza City is pocked from what he called "Fatah bullets" from the 2007 fighting. “First, our land is not just the West Bank and Gaza, and that is important. It is all of Palestine.”

The rockets that reached farthest in the recent clash are called M-75s, the number denoting their range in kilometers. Zahar, a doctor by training, said “they are entirely a Palestinian creation,” rather than something imported from Iran.

There are many more, he said, and more will be made.

But Hamas is also hailing its patrons in Iran, a tactic that appears designed to shame Arab states into providing fresh support.

Iran provides the movement with money, training and, according to Israeli officials, other kinds of rockets.

Two new billboards have been put up along Salahudin Road, the strip’s main north-south highway, thanking Iran in four languages for its support in the recent conflict. A Palestinian and Iranian flag blend together in the background.

Kamal Ajrami, a 54-year-old police officer, said he believes that a military victory over Israel is possible.

“As much as the Jews did to us, it is different now,” Ajrami said as he left a mosque here. “We have now reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We are strong, and as they hit us in our houses, they will feel the same now in theirs.”

The lingering dreams of an older generation, though, bring a sceptical response from the younger one.

A poster of Abdullah Muzannar hangs in the window of his family's sweet shop here. His smiling face floats superimposed in front of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the central icon of all “martyr” montages.

He was 19 years old, a university student who wanted to be a chemistry teacher, when he was killed from the blast of an Israeli airstrike on the home of a neighbour aligned with Hamas.

Inside the shop, Sami Badawi, 26, works behind a counter crowded with sticky pastries and cakes. On the night before he died, Muzannar rushed to the hospital when he heard Badawi's seven-month-old son had been taken there with a fever, staying throughout the night and offering to pay any bills.

“He loved my son,” said Badawi, a tall, rail-thin man with dark circles under his eyes

He continued, “Victory for what? For the people who died in this war? Abdullah was my best friend, and this was all just losses.”

By arrangement with the Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service