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Hamas rule has not turned out as many expected

The housing stipends, promised by Hamas social workers after much of Umm Mohammed’s neighbourhood was demolished in an Israeli military assault three years ago, never came. The water barrels pledged by civic authorities seemed to go only to Hamas cadres.

world Updated: Apr 19, 2012 23:14 IST

The housing stipends, promised by Hamas social workers after much of Umm Mohammed’s neighbourhood was demolished in an Israeli military assault three years ago, never came. The water barrels pledged by civic authorities seemed to go only to Hamas cadres.

Electricity is a rarity. And as Israeli airstrikes targeting Palestinian militants pounded the Gaza Strip last month, the housewife said, the enclave’s Hamas rulers watched from “their chairs” — lingo here for cushy seats of power.

“They say they are the resistance against the enemy,” said Umm Mohammed, 26, bouncing a baby on her knee. “Where is the resistance?”

The militant Islamist movement surged to a surprise victory in Palestinian elections in 2006 with promises of clean governance and a reputation for terrorist tactics against Israel, which had withdrawn from Gaza the year before. But after five years of Hamas administration, many in this besieged strip say it has lived up to neither.

Hamas is fast losing popularity, and recent surveys indicate that it would not win if elections were held in Gaza today. As enthusiasm for Islamist parties grows in the Arab world and prompts questions about what shape political Islam will take, some say Hamas’s path from violent opposition movement to de facto government could be instructive: The Gaza-based rulers, analysts say, have become more pragmatic and more self-interested — a bit more like common politicians.

Corruption and patronage

Ideology aside, the Hamas that won control of this Mediterranean strip, isolated by an economic siege and hobbled by 30% unemployment, no longer looks the same to many Gazans. It secured once-lawless streets, as promised. But hopes of Islam-guided fairness and an end to the graft that had tainted the tenure of the secular Fatah party have turned to widespread griping about Hamas corruption and patronage.

Hamas has hired over 40,000 civil servants, and analysts say the top tiers are filled by loyalists. Members of the Hamas elite are widely thought to have enriched themselves through investment in the labyrinth of smuggling tunnels beneath the border with Egypt and taxes on the imported goods.

That money has been channeled into flashy cars and Hamas-owned businesses that only stalwarts get a stake in, critics say.

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post