Efforts to reunify the Palestinians behind one leadership appear to have hit a dead end: Hamas leaders ruling the Gaza Strip have concluded that subordinating themselves to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be wasting a golden opportunity offered by the Arab Spring.
The thinking, as revealed in interviews with top Hamas officials, is that the regional rise of political Islam in the wake of the past year’s uprisings means this is the time for their Islamic militant group to dominate.
As part of that hard line, some say Gaza -- abandoned by Israeli settlers and soldiers in 2005 -- should steer Palestinian politics instead of the West Bank, where Israel holds far more sway.
“We want the West Bank to come under the Gaza umbrella, simply because Gaza is liberated, and the government there is elected,” said a top Hamas official, referring to 2006 parliamentary elections that produced a short-lived Hamas-led government in the West Bank and Gaza. After Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, the Western-backed Abbas dismissed that government and appointed his own in the West Bank.
A unity deal brokered by Qatar last month was to end five years of separate governments -- Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in the West Bank. Under the agreement, Abbas is to lead an interim government of independent technocrats for several months, until elections. As interim prime minister, he would regain at least a measure of control in Gaza.
The top Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, signed the deal without consulting with the movement, pitting him against much of the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
It was part of Mashaal’s attempt to steer Hamas away from longtime patrons Iran and Syria and closer to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which markets a more tolerant Islam and has urged Hamas to moderate. Mashaal’s pledge to Abbas last month to halt violence is part of that shift.
While the Brotherhood has urged Mashaal to make concessions for the sake of reconciliation, Gaza’s Hamas leaders believe they shouldn’t be asked to share control at a time when their movement is finally breaking out of its isolation.
In a test of wills, it increasingly appears that the Gazans will prevail since implementing a unity deal would require their cooperation on the ground.
“The Doha understanding is frozen now,” said Azzam al-Ahmed, Abbas’ point man in talks with Hamas. “It’s in the refrigerator because Hamas in Gaza is against it and won't allow its implementation.”
Neither side has moved toward implementing the deal since it was signed.
That may partly be due to Abbas’ own reservations about an alliance with the Islamic militants, which could cost him Western backing. Aides have said Abbas wants to keep his options open until after the U.S. presidential election in November, hoping a second-term President Barack Obama, freed from domestic constraints, will push hard for a deal on Palestinian statehood.
On the other hand, Hamas figures opposing the Qatar deal say the movement should not make any decisions before the Egyptian presidential election in late May. The Brotherhood is the strongest political force in Egypt, and the presidential ballot could translate that growing influence into real power.
Hamas officials hope Egypt will then become more supportive of the Hamas regime in Gaza, though it remains unclear how much influence the army generals leading Egypt in the interim will retain.
“Hamas was able to survive for five years ... and now Hamas feels it is in a much better situation,” said Gaza analyst Mkhaimar Abu Sada. “The region is becoming more Islamist, more friendly to Hamas through the election of political Islam. Hamas does not want to rush anything.”
Abbas aides accuse Iran of trying to sabotage reconciliation, claiming Tehran has begun to reroute its funding by sending more money directly to Gaza instead of the Hamas leadership in exile.
The most outspoken opponent of the Qatar agreement is Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar, who visited Iran last week. Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has sent conflicting messages - he initially welcomed the Doha deal in public, but then visited Tehran.
In a tense 13-hour meeting of Hamas leaders in Cairo earlier this month, Haniyeh was among those criticizing the deal. Opponents then managed to slip in conditions for a unity government that Abbas is likely to reject, including that he report to the defunct Hamas-led parliament.
With the generals still in charge in Egypt, there are signs of pressure from Cairo on Gaza’s hard-liners. Egypt has cracked down on the smuggling of fuel to Gaza, leading to severe shortages and rolling power cuts of 18 hours a day. The fuel, customarily smuggled through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, supplies Gaza’s only power plant which was forced to shut down last month.
“Egypt believes that Abbas is the legitimate leader and that Gaza should get back under the Palestinian Authority umbrella,” said a Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Hamas government has overcome adversity in the past, including a border closure imposed by Israel and Egypt after the 2007 takeover. With a government budget of roughly $750 million, Hamas has put together a bureaucracy and security force.
Trying to survive, it has been stepping up tax collection.
Several months ago, Hamas sealed the network of smuggling tunnels near the border with Egypt so shipments can be stopped and taxed. Initially, only fuel importers had to pay tariffs of 100 percent or more. Since February, those bringing in cement and other vital construction supplies also pay.
The ongoing Hamas-Fatah standoff means anomalies of life in Gaza will continue.
Once a month, employees of the two rival Palestinian governments line up on opposite sides of Omar al-Mukhtar Street in Gaza City to collect their salaries. Hamas loyalists get paid at the main post office. Civil servants and troops employed by Abbas before the Hamas takeover and now paid by him to stay home pick up their cash from a nearby bank.
“We are living in a country with two governments, and aren't even able to live,” said Munther Abu Hattab, standing outside the post office. “We hope that reconciliation will work, but on the ground, there is no reconciliation.”