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Hamas' struggles

Daniella Cheslow, Gaza CityJanuary 31, 2014

As the Middle East descends further into violence and turmoil, the Palestinian Hamas group finds itself facing a slew of domestic and external problems. Those constraints may force it to change its role in the region.

Kraftwerk in Gaza
Image: picture alliance/ZUMA Press

Every time political scientist Mukhaimar Abusaada goes to his second-story apartment in Gaza City, he is grateful he doesn't live on the seventh floor. The increasing cost of fuel in Gaza, a result of Hamas' rocky relationship with the military government in Egypt, means high-rise buildings can no longer afford to power their elevators. And that shortage appears likely to continue now that Egypt's military has endorsed Field Marshal Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi's presidential bid.

"Under the current circumstances 2014 is going to be a very bad year for Hamas," said Abusaada, of Gaza City's Al-Azhar University.

The Gaza Strip is an isolated enclave of 1.7 million Palestinians. It has suffered shortages of fuel, food and building materials ever since Israel imposed a blockade in 2007 after Hamas seized control of the territory. But over the past year Hamas has also lost vital alliances with Egypt, Iran and Syria. The economic squeeze of that isolation is pushing Hamas into the unlikely position of peacekeeper with Israel and of courting rival Fatah in the West Bank.

Since 2007, Gazans have bypassed Israel's blockade by importing construction materials, cars, livestock, and subsidized fuel through a network of tunnels from Egypt. Even though Gaza's power plants cannot keep up with local demand for electricity, cheap fuel from Egypt allowed homeowners - and operators of high-rise buildings - to keep the lights on with generators. Residents of Gaza could also come and go through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Tunnels were also big business for Hamas, which relied on taxes for smuggled goods for as much as 40 percent of its budget.

Running on empty

When Egypt's military seized power in July, one of el-Sissi's first moves was to destroy the tunnel network and close the Rafah crossing. Now the only fuel coming into Gaza is double the price - and that's why Abusaada's neighbors are trudging up seven flights of stairs.

tunnel PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Egypt has destroyed large parts of the tunnel network used by Hamas to smuggle goods and fuelImage: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

"Three years ago, when we got Egyptian diesel the generators worked longer hours," Abusaada told DW. "For the past six months since the closure of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt we are running from crisis to crisis."

El-Sissi has also declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization - implicating its sister movement Hamas as well.

Hamas's problems with Egypt are compounded by other fraying regional alliances. In January 2012, the Hamas leadership left Damascus to protest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's violent crackdown on a national rebellion. In response, Syria's supporter Iran cut off aid and weapons deliveries to Hamas.

Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad confirmed his movement is facing dire straits.

"It's not easy for us," Hamad told DW by phone. "We feel some countries are working against Hamas, to undermine and destroy the project of resistance."

Cash crunch

Money is so tight that Hamas has not paid full salaries to its 47,000 employees in the last six months. The 2014 budget already has a deficit of 75 percent. Hamad said his government is performing a triage, trying to preserve the work of the security, health and education ministries and stripping down operations of other offices.

The immediate cash crunch aside, Hamas's isolation has political ramifications. Israeli newspapers report that Hamas has deployed its own militia along the frontier with Israel to prevent rocket firings. Several Israeli airstrikes, including two strikes that killed three people in Gaza last week, have met with anemic responses. Shlomo Brom, former director of the strategic planning division of the Israeli army, said Hamas is doing its best to prevent Gazans from triggering an escalation with Israel.

"Hamas is investing many resources in trying to keep the Gaza Strip quiet and to avoid conflict with Israel," Brom said.

Reaching out

two men talking
Hamas is trying to reconcile its differences with FatahImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Meanwhile, Hamas has also reached out to Fatah, its rival movement in the West Bank, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In January Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh released seven Fatah prisoners in Gaza. He also offered Fatah members exiled from Gaza in 2007 a chance to return. Political scientist Abusaada sees a direct link between the gestures and the financial crisis.

"Pressure from Palestinians in Gaza is mounting against Hamas as a result of the tense situation of electricity, cooking gas, gasoline and diesel," he said. "So Hamas is trying to alleviate some of the public pressure by proposing or implementing these positive gestures toward Fatah. "

Hamas spokesman Hamad confirmed his government is courting Fatah, but he added, "there is no connection between the financial situation and reconciliation."

With Egypt's el-Sissi poised to run for president, Hamas could face a bleak 2014. Nevertheless, Hamad stands by his movement's strategic decisions.

"I can say that the situation around us has changed, but we have not changed," Hamad said. "We are not in the pocket of any country - not Iran and not Syria. We are working according to our vision and strategy."