Since taking over the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Hamas has ruled the territory like a personal kingdom, bolstering its own authority, ruthlessly crushing its opposition, and generally undermining the notion that Palestinians are ready to inherit a single, unified state alongside Israel. According to a September report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, none of these factors are likely change any time soon.
Warning that “in Gaza, new realities are taking hold,” the ICG report, titled “Round Two in Gaza,” concluded that “reversing the drift toward greater Palestinian separation, both political and geographic, will be a difficult and, at this point, almost hopeless task.” Because Hamas has spent the past few years consolidating its rule, moreover, there is little reason to believe that the terror group will be dislodged from the Gaza Strip.
To understand why Hamas’s power is all but uncontested, one need only look back to this August, when the organization launched a campaign of repression and intimidation against its rivals. First, Hamas warned that Palestinian clans and militias would not be allowed to operate without approval of the ruling regime – a move that effectively neutered the opposition. Soon thereafter, Hamas assaulted a leading clan, the Fatah-aligned Hilles, and accused it of masterminding a July bombing that killed five Hamas field commanders. The message was received. In due course an even larger pro-Fatah clan, Dughmoush, pledged that it would obey Hamas laws.
Just as the clans have been suppressed, rival Islamist groups have proven no match for Hamas. In Gaza City, Hamas reportedly has taken over at least two mosques of the Iranian-sponsored Islamic Jihad. Hamas also gained control of summer camps operated by Islamic Jihad. "We were sending a message: We are not messing around," a senior Hamas military commander was quoted by the ICG report as saying. For their part, Fatah and Jihad operatives have acknowledged that Hamas, with 20,000 on its payroll, has become the only political party in the Gaza Strip.
That leaves public opinion as the lone check on Hamas’ power, a point not lost on the group. According to the ICG report, "Hamas will continue to consolidate internal security while turning to other aspects of its agenda that it hopes will assuage popular opinion: repairing the damage caused by Israeli incursions -- it has promised to dedicate $2 million to rebuilding houses in northern Gaza -- and reducing corruption.”
Aside from its insights into the emergence of the Hamas terror state, the most valuable aspect of the ICG report is its bleak conclusion. In light of the developments in Gaza, the ICG points out that “prospects for reconciliation, reunification and a credible peace process seem as distant and illusory as ever.” Therein lies a valuable lesson for policy makers who may entertain grand schemes for brokering peace in the Middle East.