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I used to live and work in Gaza, and have very good memories of my time there. I’ve kept up connections with friends and old colleagues, and at the beginning of November I returned to visit them, for the first time in two years.

I entered Gaza via the Rafah Crossing, which straddles the border between southern Gaza and Egypt, and spent two weeks catching up with my friends and revisiting old haunts. It was freakish good luck that I left Gaza the day before Israel assassinated Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabiri, and launched its latest military assault on Gaza.

For eight days and nights, the Israeli military pounded Gaza with some 1,500 air-strikes that were described by one Gaza city resident as ‘heart-stopping explosions’. Gazan friends sent me frightened messages late at night, when the bombing was most intense. One wrote a text saying ‘Thank God we are still alive’. Another messaged, ‘I’m so glad that you left before this started: no-one should have to live through this.’ 167 Gazans did not live through the Israeli military assault, and a thousand others were maimed and injured. The majority of the dead and injured were civilians. The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and there are no civilian bomb shelters.

Losing popularity

When the Egyptian government announced a hudna, or ceasefire, between Israel and Hamas on 22 November, my exhausted friends took to the streets and celebrated with the rest of Gaza. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi took the credit for negotiating the ceasefire (and immediately awarded himself sweeping new powers). US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also in Cairo when the ceasefire was confirmed: having heavily armed the Israeli military, the US then requested they make ‘every effort’ to avoid killing civilians in Gaza – before Clinton played her cameo role as a global peace-broker.

But at its press conference, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal crowed that Israel had ‘failed’ to subdue Gaza – and despite the terrible human cost, his words rang true. Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2006, and has, especially in these last two years, become richer, more powerful – and more repressive. The regime is in no mood to be cowed by Israel. Meanwhile, local and international human rights defenders have lambasted Hamas’s human rights record, and the regime has become steadily more unpopular, and more feared, by ordinary people inside Gaza.

Tariq Mukhimer is a Gazan political analyst who has just written a book on the rise of Hamas. I met him during my recent visit, and he explained why he believes Hamas has become so powerful. ‘The Hamas movement has huge co-ordination skills, and has devoted these skills to keeping itself in power, as opposed to developing democracy for the people it rules,’ he told me. ‘In its ideology there is no space for [local] tolerance, or dissent.’ Tariq calls the movement’s ideology’ ‘a policy of self –absolution’. But he also believes that Israel’s closure of Gaza, and Western international sanctions against Hamas, have both failed to protect human rights in Gaza. If these sanctions were lifted, Hamas, in his opinion, could respond well to international political dialogue, as it seeks international legitimacy.

The Emir of Qatar recently visited Gaza, and pledged $400 million to fund construction projects across the Strip, in defiance of Western sanctions against Hamas. But Qatar is also one of the US’s strongest regional allies, and many Palestinians are cynical, believing this massive cash injection will deepen the divisions between Hamas and its political rival, the Fatah government over on the Palestinian West Bank, which is now politically weak and heavily indebted.

An inconvenient truth

Hamdi Shaqqura is a Program Officer at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza city. He agrees that closure and international sanctions have punished only the people of Gaza, ‘not our political leadership’, and have done nothing to protect human rights in Gaza, or to weaken the Hamas regime. Over the last 12 months Israel has eased its blockade of the Strip, but still massively restricts the entry and export of goods in and out of Gaza. Raw construction materials, for instance, remain banned by Israel, and are brought into the Strip via the infamous network of tunnels that snake beneath the Gaza/Egypt border. The underlying dynamics of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have not changed. Since the brief, devastating war of December 2008, when 1,400 Gazans were killed, Israel and Hamas have observed a series of truces, but these have always ruptured into violence. And as Hamdi Shaqqura points out, ‘the overwhelming majority of people killed in these attacks are always Palestinians’.

Just a few days ago, Palestine was admitted to the United Nations as a new non-member observer State. For many Palestinians, this was a symbolic first step on the long road towards independent statehood. The bitter power struggle between Hamas and Fatah is one of the main political obstacles to Palestinian statehood. Having secured its political supremacy in Gaza, Hamas has far less to gain from political reconciliation with Fatah, except on its own terms. The bitter irony for Israel is that, having encouraged the growth of the Hamas movement back in the mid-1980s (because back then, Israel wanted a Palestinian political rival to threaten the rise of Fatah), Hamas is a force that Israel must now, quite literally, reckon with.

Meanwhile, the Western international community must face up to the fact that Hamas may be belligerent, provocative, violent, repressive and so on (the list is long) – but sanctions against the movement have completely failed. The inconvenient truth is that Hamas is not the source of this smouldering conflict, the backbone of many other tensions across the Middle East region. Because Hamas is not occupying Israel.

Louisa Waugh is a regular contributor to New Internationalist and wrote their Gaza blog from June 2008 to April 2009.

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