GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – In five years of rule in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has established a functioning, authoritarian mini-state with a strong Islamic flavor, so firmly in control that nothing short of an unlikely Israeli military takeover seems capable of dislodging the militants.
The Islamists of Palestine were once respected as a supposedly honest alternative to corrupt secular rivals, the Western-backed Fatah group led by the late Yasser Arafat. But that luster has mostly been lost as miserable Gaza becomes even poorer and more aid-dependent. The corruption of the Fatah days is perceived to have persisted into Hamas' rule, as Audis, Porsches and Hummers are driven around potholed streets by a newly wealthy class of black market traders who benefit from the regime.
For those inclined to fight Israel, even that appeal was lost as Hamas has mostly stuck to a truce in recent years.
On the streets of Gaza, bitterness seems prevalent.
"I am not saying Fatah was better, but when I voted for Hamas I voted for change," said Fahmi Khamis, 42, a vendor who sells made-in-China household goods in Gaza City's outdoor market. "This did not happen. Instead, we lost a lot."
This month marks five years since Hamas violently seized Gaza in a brief civil war — a year after winning 2006 parliamentary elections and following an effort at joint rule with Fatah. The anniversary comes at a tense moment in the region. Its parent group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is locked in a struggle for power in neighboring Egypt. Results from last weekend's close presidential vote are expected at any moment and there is widespread fear of renewed violence if the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi is not declared the winner.
Are there lessons to be learned here about what would follow in Egypt should Islamists ultimately come to power there? The inclination to seek them is natural enough: Hamas became the first branch of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood to get a chance to govern. But the differences are considerable between huge, proudly independent Egypt and tiny Gaza, with its narrative of victimization, struggles with Israel and split from the still Fatah-ruled West Bank. And for fellow Islamists on the rise — not just in Egypt but in Tunisia, Libya and other countries transformed by the Arab Spring — the Hamas experiment in Gaza seems mostly an embarrassment.
"If they (Islamic movements) look at Hamas, it's as a negative model of what happens if you win elections too quickly and face unfavorable international conditions," said Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
From the moment Hamas seized Gaza from Arafat's successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel and Egypt sealed the territory's borders and much of the world boycotted the Islamists for refusing to renounce violence and recognize Israel. The economy hobbled along, relying on blockade-evading smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border, support from a U.N. aid agency that serves two-thirds of the population, Iranian largesse and continued salary transfers from the Abbas government in the West Bank for tens of thousands of pro-Fatah civil servants who were paid not to work for Hamas.
Today, the blockade — though eased slightly in the last two years — continues to prevent economic recovery and slows down badly needed infrastructure projects, such as sewage treatment plants. The per capita GDP is 17 percent lower than seven years ago, 90 percent of drinking water is unfit for consumption without treatment and 90 million liters of untreated or partially treated sewage are dumped into the sea each day, according to U.N. figures. One-third of the workforce is unemployed.
At the same time, the black-market economy and unchallenged one-party rule have created a new wealthy class. Lack of oversight over millions of dollars in annual aid from Iran and private Arab donors has fueled rumors of official corruption. Tunnel smugglers are seen driving around in fancy cars.
Government spokesman Hassan Abu Hashish said Gaza's Hamas leaders are as frugal as when they ran an underground movement.
"We are talking about clean-handed leaders," he said. "They have stayed in their homes in the alleys of refugee camps and in their old neighborhoods and drive old cars that were used for years by the previous government."
Hamas has set up a well-oiled bureaucracy with 24,000 civil servants and a 16,000-strong security force, whose salaries gobble up more than half of the 2012 budget of $769 million, leaving little for services. Only $174 million is expected from local revenues, but Hamas remains tight-lipped about where it gets the rest.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency shoulders much of the burden, providing medical care, schooling and food supplements to the descendants of those displaced by Israel's 1948 creation, a large majority of Gazans. Half of Gaza's children attend U.N.-run schools.
Hamas has refrained from passing sweeping Islamic legislation, apparently fearing a public backlash. Firebrands in the movement have tried to push the boundaries whenever they see an opening, ordering female lawyers to cover their hair in court, preventing women from riding on the backs of motorcycles and demanding they not smoke water pipe in public. However, such edicts are rarely enforced for long.
There is a marked Islamic shift, but Gazans say it comes more from social pressure instigated by Hamas loyalists than direct official coercion. Only a few teenage girls dare to attend school without headscarves, fearing the disapproval of teachers and peers, but there is no formal rule to cover up.
But in education, Hamas abandoned early attempts to Islamize the curriculum when it became clear that Gaza high school degrees would only be accepted by foreign universities if endorsed by the West Bank government, said West Bank government spokesman Ghassan Khatib.
Hamas has systematically silenced dissent. Fatah activists have borne the brunt, mirroring similar crackdowns on Hamas in the West Bank where authoritarian tendencies have also increased. Hamas has also shut down independent media, harassed journalists and prevented some gatherings viewed as undermining its absolute control.
Gazans, many struggling to feed their families and forced to endure hours-long power cuts every day, still feel free to gripe to relatives and friends about life under the Islamists, generally without fear of arrest. However, advancement in government jobs and business opportunities are largely reserved for Hamas loyalists.
On the positive side, many Gazans agree that the government has managed to restore a sense of personal safety, after years of internal strife and deadly clashes with Israel, including a full-blown war three years ago.
And despite the obstacles of the blockade, the Hamas government has launched several ambitious public works projects.
Gaza City is getting a 40-meter-wide boardwalk, financed with $3 million by a West Bank-based company. The Rafah passenger terminal — busy again since Egypt eased restrictions on travel from Gaza after the ouster of pro-Western President Hosni Mubarak last year — is being refurbished with $1.6 million from Arab Gulf states.
As things stand now, it seems Hamas can run Gaza for many more years. Israel eased the blockade two years ago, under mounting international pressure. It also does not seem to have the appetite for another major military offensive, let alone retaking a hostile territory which it occupied from 1967 to 2005.
Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank.