In an unusual step, the Hamas bloc within the Palestinian Legislative Council held a session on the morning of May 29, 2013, questioning Interior Minister Fathi Hammad about violations of freedom in the Gaza Strip and Minister of Antiquities and Tourism Ali al-Tarshawi about the destruction of an archaeological site. Although there are some who consider this step not to be in earnest, the spokesman for the Gaza government Taher al-Nono said in an interview with Al-Monitor, "We consider this an important and natural step in the development and transparency sought by the government in Gaza."
This step carried out by the Hamas bloc in the Legislative Council raises many questions about the extent of agreement and disagreement between Hamas the movement and Hamas the government. Has Hamas' experience in ruling increased the movement's credibility?
Nono said that Hamas' arrival to power meant that they lost some supporters and gained others, and in any case one cannot please everyone. He said that since the very beginning the government has been flexible with the movement, yet maintained distance between the two, and that they have learned from Fatah's experience in power.
Sami Abu Zuhri, the spokesman for the Hamas movement, said that the movement's popularity is stable, yet it has benefited through increased power at all levels via the government. He said that the government has exercised its role independently of the movement, and the latter is involved only in the process of evaluating some observations and errors.
Mushir al-Masri, a member of the Hamas movement in the Legislative Council, said that there are some disagreements concerned with the government's on-the-ground dealings with the outside world, which require positions that are more open than those of the movement. This, however, does not mean that the movement and the government do not agree on the majority of issues, particularly those that concern issues of nationalist principles.
During a meeting with Al-Monitor at the Legislative Council's media department, Masri stressed that there is injustice in the way international parties have dealt with the government, despite the fact that it is independent of the movement. The world still considers the government one of Hamas' many faces, and it was placed on the international list of terrorist organizations. He confirmed that the government would succeed via the financial support and backing of its positions it received from Hamas' institutions.
Masri added that the movement would never allow the government — which it gave birth to — to relinquish or change its principles, as the Fatah movement did during its experience in the Palestinian National Authority (PA).
This adaptability and flexibility within the movement was predicted by Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela in their book "The Palestinian Hamas," published in 1999. They write: "It [Hamas] is the movement of the Islamic resistance, which was born shortly after the outbreak of the intifada in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in late 1987. Since that time, it has been mediating between the two extremes and searching for gains. Its message — which is filled with Islamic slogans and values, and behavior indicative of the political reality — calls for a holy war against Israel, yet did not rule out the possibility of a temporary cease-fire."
Governance and economy
In a phone interview with Al-Monitor, Nono said that Hamas' experience in power was something new for the movement, and represented a fundamental change. While its institutions had previously been managed by the movement's supporters, it was now forced to deal with all of society. This led to a change in its policies, particularly given that it had to deal with foreign states for the first time.
He added that after the military conflict between Fatah and Hamas in June 2007, no one was willing to work with the administrative apparatus formed by the Hamas government. Thus, Hamas has been working alone on improving itself to get to where it is today, by relying on foreign training. This is the opposite of what occurred prior to 2007, when its administrative apparatus was disobedient and focused only on day-to-day affairs. Yet, after 2008, they began to talk about efficiency, and the recent war brought about a new model of high-quality administrative work.
Yezid Sayigh's book, "Three Years of Hamas Rule," published by the Al-Zaytouna Center for Studies and Consultations in Beirut in 2010, notes that in the six months following the military conflict in 2007, Hamas was able to tighten its control on the joints of governance in the Gaza Strip in terms of both security and the economy. It would not have succeeded were it not for former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's decision that allowed tens of thousands of PA employees to stay at home instead of coming to their workplace.
Sayigh adds that in the following years, Gaza's ministries began to coordinate and exchange information in a highly committed manner, and constantly updated their websites. This is despite the fact that in the beginning, the ministries were governing the Hamas movement's institutions: the preaching department, the military wing and the movement's Shura Council. Analysts consider this council to be a shadow government that works to ensure the government's policies are consistent with the movement's broader agenda.
Sayigh stressed that the Hamas government was administering Gaza via a unique economic system that depended on a mix of three sources of income: smuggling through the tunnels, monthly aid provided by Fayyad's government, and services and salaries provided by non-governmental organizations, first and foremost the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
Abu Zuhri, the Hamas movement's spokesman who met with Al-Monitor in his office, said that the government had made a number of achievements in the social sphere, notably by putting an end to nepotism and providing security, economic alternatives (via cultivating liberated lands), necessities such as fruit and vegetables, meat and eggs (through some of the possible industries), and substantial assistance to the unemployed. They also employed university graduates and built housing projects for the poor.
Hamas and society
"We're Erdogan, not that Taliban." This phrase is constantly repeated by moderate leaders within the Hamas government in response to attempts by extremists within the movement to Islamize society. They do this through launching what resemble "trial balloons" and waiting for a response. The government quickly renounces these measures and considers them "individual acts" if they are met with rejection. These "test balloons" began in the summer of 2009, when a "virtue campaign" was launched that required female lawyers to wear headscarves and prevented gender mixing in public places.
Abu Zuhri said, "Some mistakes were made, this is only normal. No government is without mistakes, but these were not systematic or deliberate, and they are usually made by certain parties within the government. We do not remain silent about them; we try to fix them."
Nono said that those in the government are aware of the gaps and mistakes and they are trying to fix them. They also listen to complaints made by citizens and civil society organizations. He cited the example of "sagging pants" — which was immediately rejected by the government, and they called for an end to any extralegal measures. He said that any decision that infringed upon public freedoms — such as banning women from smoking water pipes — was halted immediately, yet the media never mentions this.
While these "mistakes" are in line with the movement's primary goals — one of which is establishing an Islamic community — they are contrary to the pragmatic face of the movement, which has always been subject to reality and open to delaying the movement's greater dreams. This has caused a number of the movement's members to split off and join the Salafists, particularly after the government took control of the mosques, appointed Friday preachers and fought against Salafist organizations, led by Abdel Latif Moussa's organization. Hamas killed Moussa and 20 of his followers in August 2009, as they considered the Hamas movement to be the only religious movement in Palestine, and they did not accept any competitors also keen to revive Sharia law.
In “The Palestinian Hamas" this range from political pragmatism to religious extremism is addressed: "Despite growing religious extremism, Hamas lives in the world of social relations and primary needs. It is racing toward relationships that benefit the movement. This world of bargaining is increasing due to fears of the emergence of new powers that could cause the movement to lose opportunities and achievements.”
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse and a journalist from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.