Hamas tries to boost its popularity
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement has politicians sweeping streets to show community spirit, activists distributing chocolates and cards signed “from Hamas with love,’’ and police officers visiting homes and schools to soften the often harsh image of the security forces.
The Islamic militants, who mark the anniversary of their movement’s 1987 founding today, say the outreach is simply a way to reconnect with Gazans after more than three years in sole control of Gaza.
They deny that they have been losing ground, though one poll suggests support for the group has been slashed in half since its 2006 election victory.
The need to shore up popularity highlights the dilemma that has vexed Hamas since it seized Gaza from internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007: In trying to be both a violent resistance movement and a responsible government, it often ends up satisfying neither its militant core constituency nor people hoping for a better life.
Since taking power, Hamas has attempted a balancing act.
It has tried to keep its militant ideology, fearing that moderation would render it a politically irrelevant lesser copy of Abbas’s pragmatic Fatah movement. But while maintaining fierce rhetoric, Hamas largely halted attacks on Israel to avoid the punishing retaliation that makes it more difficult to govern.
An informal truce, in place since Israel’s war on Gaza two years ago, has not been enough to get Israel and Egypt to lift the border blockade they imposed after the 2007 takeover. Without this life is unlikely to return to normal, and Gazans still overwhelmingly depend on handouts and struggle with more than 30 percent unemployment.
The level of support for Hamas is difficult to gauge because Gazans are not inclined to speak freely for fear of repercussions. Hamas remains firmly in control, but some analysts say they detect growing impatience with Gaza’s isolation, as well as with Hamas’s attempts to enforce conservative Islamic mores and stifle dissent.
“Hamas’s popularity has been declining while in power, mostly because of the living conditions under the blockade and mistakes . . . such as human rights violations and restrictions in freedom of speech,’’ said West Bank-based pollster Walid Ladadweh, who measured a popularity drop in Gaza from 31.7 percent to 23.9 percent from summer to fall of this year. The poll of 1,200 people had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
At the height of its popularity, after winning parliament elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006, Hamas had an approval rating of just over 50 percent, according to Ladadweh’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
Hamas, the Gaza branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, insists that it is more popular than ever, and intends to prove it with a mass rally today, marking the 23d anniversary of its founding.
The turnout is closely watched every year, and Hamas has been working hard to ensure a large crowd. Some 200 buses, along with dozens more vans, are to deliver supporters to the site, a sandy lot in Gaza City, where 250,000 plastic chairs are being set up. Since the Hamas takeover, the annual rallies have had large turnouts on a similar scale.