It has been three months since Hamas took power in Gaza, and what a short, strange trip it’s been. In the beginning, Hamas spokesmen assuaged the consciences of credulous op-ed page editors everywhere with submissions that promised an enlightened, progressive Islamist government. One spokesman wrote in the New York Times that “Our sole focus is Palestinian rights and good governance.” He also said in a Washington Post op-ed that Hamas’s ambitions in Gaza are actually western ambitions: “self-determination, modernity . . . and freedom for civil society to evolve.” Another wrote, in the Los Angeles Times, that “Gaza will be calm and under the rule of law—a place where all journalists, foreigners, and guests of the Palestinian people will be treated with dignity.” (At the time he offered no word on how many yoga studios and organic food stands would be opened.)
The English-language spokesmen for Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups have long since mastered the democratic political lexicon, and the number of westerners eager to be taken in by such clichés has always been high. But now that Hamas has been in power for a quarter-year, it has an actual political track record to observe. And this record shows that Hamas, in defiance of the fervent wishes and predictions of its western apologists, has behaved exactly as many of us predicted at the beginning of the summer: In ideology, ambition, and style of governance, Hamas has come to resemble most closely its major regional patron, Iran.
The new climate in Gaza is fearsome. Hamas has banned unapproved public gatherings, routinely beaten political opponents, intimidated journalists, and imposed a de facto regime of shari’a law. The internal purge continues, with regular death threats against Fatah loyalists and in many cases the firings of Fatah-associated doctors and other professionals. The only parts of the Gaza economy that still have a pulse are those bankrolled by foreign aid. In a long report in yesterday’s Washington Post, Scott Wilson gives readers a taste of the new Gaza:
After Friday prayers in recent weeks, Fatah supporters have marched through Gaza’s streets in protest against the Hamas administration. “Shia! Shia!” the demonstrators shouted, an insulting reference to the Sunni Muslim movement’s inflexible Islamic character and financial support from the Shiite government of Iran.
Their numbers have swelled into the thousands, and Hamas’s patience appears exhausted. The Palestinian Scholars League, an Islamic council dominated by Hamas clerics, issued a fatwa early this month prohibiting outdoor prayer.
The past three months have also been a test of the theory that power would moderate Hamas. After Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, many people—including President Bush—predicted that a certain pragmatism finally would be forced on the Islamist group, and that it would be compelled to shift its focus from terrorism to the humdrum of daily governance.
But the decline of Gaza has not given Hamas’s leaders a moment’s pause in their pursuit of an external war against Israel and an internal war against Fatah. Rockets are fired from Gaza on a daily basis, and attempted infiltrations of Israel, many of them for the purpose of abducting another IDF soldier, are a regular occurrence. In many ways Hamas has been emboldened by the continued arrival, regardless of its terror war, of foreign aid money and water and electricity from Israel. Hamas, in other words, has been given the ability to run a consequence-free jihad.
The only good news to come out of all this is that at least for now, the movement to “engage” Hamas—most popular in Britain and Europe—has fallen into dormancy. Such calls might be revived as planning for the Bush administration’s regional conference intensifies, but the Hamas leadership may yet prove to be so ideologically stubborn and politically obtuse that even people like Daniel Levy and Colin Powell will not be able to help.