Hamas' Shaky First Month In Power

Palestinians carry sacks of flour as they receive monthly food supplies from the UN Relief and Works Agency, at a warehouse in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, om March 22, 2006. With their salaries nearly a month overdue and savings depleted, Palestinian families are just scraping by. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)
AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File
Ayman Shurasi invested his life savings in an amusement park for Gaza's children, replete with "flying" elephants, bumper cars and a smiling Thomas the Tank Engine.

Israel was about to pull out from the fenced-in, desperately poor coastal strip.

"I wanted to erase the bad dreams and bad images from the minds of children and create a child's atmosphere in Gaza," he said.

Nine months later, with the optimism spawned by Israel's withdrawal replaced by the financial debacle of a new Hamas-led government, most Gazans can barely afford bread, let alone the $3 ticket to enter Shurasi's now largely empty park.

Just one month into Hamas' rule, international isolation has deprived it of the funds needed to meet Palestinians' basic needs, the Palestinian territories are in political and economic chaos, and the crisis has raised the specter of civil war.

So far, Hamas' experience leading the government after its stunning victory in January's parliamentary elections has done little to tame it. During its first month in office, the group sent envoys to Iran, appointed a notorious bombmaker to head a new militant security force and brazenly defended a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

"We understand what is the mentality of Israel, what is their philosophy, and we know that even if we kiss their foot they will not give us anything," Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said.

Despite signs of a rift inside Hamas between pragmatic and hard-line factions, the conservatives — led by Syria-based political chief Khaled Mashaal — appear to be winning the day. That sets Hamas on a collision course with Israel and the West, raising questions about how much longer it can hold onto power.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate elected separately last year, has been visiting world capitals to try to reduce his people's isolation following Hamas' rise. At the same time, he is engaged in an intense power struggle with the militant group, especially over control of the security forces.

Angry clashes broke out recently between Hamas and members of Abbas' Fatah Party after Mashaal accused Abbas of "plotting" against his group. Many Palestinians viewed it as a taste of what is to come.

Israel, the United States and Europe are boycotting the new Hamas-run government, demanding the group renounce violence and recognize Israel. That leaves Iran and Syria as its principle allies, in addition to some verbal support from Osama bin Laden, who appeared in a videotape this month lambasting the West for cutting aid to Hamas.

In recent days, Hamas politicians have been snubbed by both Jordan and Egypt, the two most important Arab players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I think it's going to be like an earthquake for Hamas. I think people will go into the streets and shout for them to leave," said Hakim Abu Samra, a civil servant in Gaza. "People are looking for someone to solve their problems, not to create more problems for them."

Yet Hamas remains popular — one recent poll showed it with 43 percent support compared with 39 percent for Fatah.

Hamas' popular support poses a dilemma for Israel and the United States, which appear to have adopted a strategy of squeezing the Hamas government financially and diplomatically in the hopes of either deposing it or forcing it to renounce violence.

Yet, if the West squeezes too hard, Palestinians might blame it for their suffering, bolstering Hamas in the process.

A freeze in Western aid and Israel's decision to withhold some $50 million in monthly tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority has left the new Hamas government unable to pay its 165,000 employees, whose salaries form the backbone of the Palestinian economy.

With the salaries nearly a month overdue, the situation is increasingly desperate.

At a butcher shop in the al Amari refugee camp in the West Bank, owner Aviv Hajj said his sales have fallen by 80 percent, but he still supports Hamas because "they are straightforward." His father, 76-year-old refugee Khamis Hajj, also expressed support for Hamas, but like many Palestinians does not share its call for Israel's destruction.