The Islamist movement Hamas, founded 25 years ago, is enjoying a new wave of popularity in the Gaza Strip. But enthusiasm over its recent military action against Israel may soon be smothered by disillusionment.
The green banners of Hamas flutter in the wind all throughout Gaza City. Early celebrations for the organization's 25th anniversary have just ended and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has left after his first visit to the territory in decades. The cease-fire has lasted for three weeks now, and slowly, life in the Gaza Strip is returning to normal.
Sipping colorful fruit cocktails, Farah, Lina and Mariam are sitting in one of the many trendy cafes that have recently opened in the city center. Their plan is to finish high school next year, but for the moment their minds are still focused on the recent conflict with Israel.
"There's no guarantee that something like that isn't going to happen again soon," says the 17-year-old Farah. "Now it looks as if Hamas and Israel have sorted themselves out, but who knows what's going to come next?"
Mariam grew up abroad, in Germany. A few years ago, her family moved back to the Gaza Strip. "I never thought I'd ever personally witness a war; I only knew this stuff from history books," she says. "It really was pretty rough. Everything is scary, and one only wants to go back to Germany where there is peace."
'In a good position'
There's little wonder that Hamas would see itself as the winner of the conflict: "It's the first time that the people of Hamas truly defended us. For once we weren't on the weaker side," says Mariam, who describes herself as much of a political person.
Similar sentiments are often heard around Gaza these days. Before the conflict, many people expressed a certain level of discontent when it came to Hamas, who won parliamentary elections in 2006 and assumed power over the Gaza Strip by force one year later.
"Currently, Hamas is in a good position," said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at Gaza's Al-Azhar University. "For the first time in this conflict it used medium-range missiles against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and it continued to do so despite heavy Israeli counterattacks. That gave the population a feeling that someone was defending and protecting them. And that they won.
"In addition, there was the visit by Khaled Mashaal - that was very useful for Hamas. The only question is how long this popularity is going to last," he added.
Indirect negotiations continue
Until now, the cease-fire established with the help of Egypt on November 21 has remained intact - and there have even been little success stories for the Islamists. In recent weeks, fishermen have been allowed to operate up to six nautical miles offshore - twice as far as earlier. The buffer zone near the Israeli border posts is also set to be reduced, allowing local farmers to regain access to their land.
But there continue to be incidents, some deadly, according to the latest report of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA).
The details of the cease-fire are still being negotiated, albeit indirectly. "We are in contact with the Egyptians who are underwriting the treaty," said Hamas politician Ghazi Hamad. "So far we haven't seen much of what the Israelis promised. In the past, they often failed to live up to their agreements. So we will monitor this for a while and then draw our conclusions. But we do want to keep the peace and avoid any new confrontations."
Next on the agenda is the reconstruction work, according to Hamas' deputy foreign affairs minister. For that, he's counting on help from the Arab states that already demonstrated their support during the conflict, thereby helping Hamas out of political isolation. In the West, Hamas is still listed as a terror organization, as it doesn't recognize the state of Israel and hasn't renounced its terrorist activities.
Reconstruction, new reconciliation attempts
Besides the recent positive developments, there are still challenges for the Hamas government, in charge of an enclave of 1.7 million people. "A year ago, after the prisoner exchange with Israel, Hamas was quite popular," said Abu Saada. "But after two months people woke up and saw their problems were still there: poverty, unemployment, the blockade, allegations of corruption and breaches of basic rights. That put a quick end to the popularity."
Samah Kassab, a young activist, said people still have to come to terms with the war. "I don't understand the reaction towards Hamas now," she said. "Only a short while ago everyone was unhappy; they made life hard for us young people and different political groups. So now - all this, just because they stood their ground against Israel?"
In recent days, there has been plenty of news coverage on the latest approaches to heal the political rift between Hamas and Fatah. For five years the internal conflict between the two parties has been unsolvable, despite the majority of the population both in Gaza and the West Bank favoring a reconciliation.
But so far, Palestinians have been waiting in vain for either side to take concrete steps. Back at the cafe, Samah says she is sick of hearing the same slogans over and over again - no matter which side they come from. "It's time for elections, but neither Fatah nor Hamas are interested in that. I don't believe we're going to see this anytime soon."
Another woman at the coffee shop joins in. "The important thing for now is that things remain calm. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?" she says. This fear of violence and destruction lurking just around the next corner - it's a fear that people in the Gaza Strip must live with on a daily basis.