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MIDEAST: Israel Strengthens Hamas Leadership

Mohammed Omer

GAZA CITY, Apr 22 2008 (IPS) - The one political result of Israel&#39s attacks and sanctions on Gaza has been that the Hamas leadership, and particularly Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, have emerged greatly strengthened.

Ismail Haniyeh Credit: Mohammed Omer

Ismail Haniyeh Credit: Mohammed Omer

Over the last three months, support for Haniyeh has overtaken that for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party. Fatah rules the West Bank, and Hamas Gaza, the two main Palestinian territories.

A poll conducted in March by the independent Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research shows that Abbas has lost a 19 percent advantage over Haniyeh over the past three months. Now, the poll suggests Haniyeh would get 47 percent of the Palestinian vote, and Abbas 46 percent.

The poll was carried out among 1,270 adults, 830 in the West Bank and 440 in the Gaza Strip, at 127 randomly selected locations.

Popularity for Haniyeh increased after the breaching of the Rafah border between Gaza and Egypt, said Dr Khalil Shikaki, head of the survey centre. The breach is believed to have been the work of Hamas, and it helped Palestinians bring in badly needed provisions denied earlier by an Israeli blockade.

The continuing Israeli attacks that brought a large number of casualties in recent weeks has also brought increased sympathy and support for Haniyeh, Shikaki told IPS.

The Hamas movement has been swiftly labelled &#39terrorist&#39 by Western governments. Israel has said it cannot deal with Haniyeh because he refuses to recognise Israel. He has been accused of failure to honour the Oslo accords of 1993. These accords were signed between Mahmoud Abbas for the Palestinians and Israel&#39s President, Shimon Peres. The accords brought the first acknowledgement from Palestinians of Israel&#39s right to exist, and agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Haniyeh&#39s position on these issues too has brought him increased support among Palestinians. "The Oslo agreements said that a Palestinian state would be established by 1999," Haniyeh said in an interview to IPS. "Where is this Palestinian state? Has Oslo given the right to Israel to reoccupy the West Bank, to build the wall and expand the settlements, and to Judaize Jerusalem and make it totally Jewish?

"Has Israel been given the right to disrupt work on the port and airport in Gaza? Has Oslo given it the right to besiege Gaza, and to stop all tax refunds to the Palestinians?"

Haniyeh is dismissive of the conditions imposed on Hamas. Israel and much of the international community, with backing from Abbas, have said they will deal with a Hamas government only if it recognises Israel, honours existing agreements, and renounces violence.

"We are surprised that such conditions are imposed on us," said Haniyeh. "Why don&#39t they direct such conditions and questions to Israel? Has Israel respected its agreements? Israel has bypassed practically all agreements. We say, let Israel recognise the legitimate right of Palestinians first, and then we will have a position regarding this. Which Israel should we recognise?

Hamas won the elections held in Gaza Jan. 25, 2006, taking 76 seats in the assembly to Fatah&#39s 43. But Fatah refused to hand over full control to Hamas, and Hamas then seized control of the Gaza administration by force in June 2007.

This has brought a strange situation. Former political prisoners from Hamas, jailed by Fatah on Western prompting, now occupy power, sometimes alongside men who were their jailors.

And among them too, Haniyeh is winning increased respect by the day. Unlike Fatah leaders, Haniyeh moves without escort, and mixes freely with people on the streets. He has turned down the offer of 4,000 dollars a month as salary, and accepts only 1,500 dollars, which is what he needs, he says, for his family that includes 13 children. And he still lives in his old house in Shati Camp, one of the poorest refugee camps in the east of Gaza City.

Ismail Haniyeh was born in 1963 to a family of refugees originally from al-Jouar village now in Israel. He graduated from the Islamic University in Gaza City in Arabic. As a student he was a member of the Islamic Bloc, the student wing of Muslim Brotherhood that would later become Hamas. Even through his student days in the 1980s, he was often at odds with Fatah members. Haniyeh later became an administrator at Islamic University.

Israeli troops jailed him four times, and sent him into exile (in Lebanon) in December 1992 along with about 400 other Hamas and Islamic Jihad members. He returned to his job as administrator in 1994, but was branded a terrorist. He worked closely with then Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He took a prominent public role only after an Israeli missile killed the wheelchair-bound Sheikh Yassin on Mar. 21, 2004.

Haniyeh has since proven himself a forceful speaker – and a patient listener. That, along with the many social activities in which he leads Hamas, such as support for orphans and hospitals, has put Hamas in good standing. He makes it a point to visit Gaza&#39s Christians and their churches, and his supporters say he is no Taleban leader.

But he has drawn new opposition too. "He has brought no development of the area, but only more problems," said a Gaza resident who did not wish to be named. "He has made it easy for Israel and America to carry out their plans against Palestinian people. He is a preacher, not a politician; if he was a politician, conditions today would not be so unbearable."

Haniyeh narrowly escaped an Israeli attack in December 2003. And many Gazans worry what might happen now if the Israelis assassinate him and other Hamas political leaders as they move around openly. "Then who will look after the 1.5 million Palestinians of Gaza," said a resident. Israel has said it will keep up its policy of political assassinations.

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