In January, Hamas stunned the world by winning a majority in Palestinian parliamentary elections, and on March 29 the militant Islamic group officially took power. That turned out to be the easy part: so far, instead of implementing its own agenda, the new ruling party has been scrambling to respond to the consequences of victory, particularly a freeze in funding to the Palestinian government by the U.S., the E.U. and some of its members.
Throughout Gaza last week, the difficulties of actually governing Palestinians could be seen everywhere. Forlorn workers from the Palestinian Economic and Development Authority, which operates greenhouses abandoned by Israeli settlers in central Gaza, had to dump hundreds of tons of cherry tomatoes in nearby scrub bush. The crops were meant to go to Europe. But since Israel has virtually sealed the borders, citing security concerns, goats ate the tomatoes instead. Because the border closings prevent imports as well, anxious U.N. workers in Gaza City fretted they'd soon run out of food to hand out to even more anxious refugees. Walid Safiz, a 28-year-old vendor selling sundries at the Friday market in Gaza City, said business was down 80% because, without international funding, the bankrupt government can't pay some 160,000 civil servants. "If they don't get salaries, they don't buy anything," he observes.
And while Hamas continues to observe a cease-fire, gunmen of the secular al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades the military wing of the deposed Fatah party vowed last week to continue cross-border attacks. A member of the equally militant Islamic Jihad, who called himself Abu Aziz, told Time his cadres will continue firing homemade Qassam rockets into Israel, even though the Israeli military responds to the few they shoot each day with hundreds of artillery shells. Thirteen militants were killed by Israeli artillery and air strikes in Gaza two weekends ago, but so were four civilians, one an 8-year-old girl.
For now, Hamas leaders, facing dwindling post-election optimism, can be glad that popular frustration is pointed at Israel, the U.S. and Europe. More flexibility from the international community would ease their difficulties, but meanwhile Hamas must manage to fill its coffers or risk having that opprobrium turned its way. And there is scarce room for maneuver: Tel Aviv has suspended monthly payments of approximately $50 million in tax revenues, and won't talk to Hamas until it halts all attacks on Israel including those by other factions. Most international capitals won't receive Hamas' leaders, and pledges of funding from Iran, Russia and some Arab countries, even if delivered, won't make up the financial shortfall.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniya lashed out at Israel and the West last Tuesday for trying "to force our people to kneel down." But his administration is searching for ways out of the current crisis, which might mean making conciliatory gestures to Israel. According to Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Hamas as an organization will not recognize Israel, and would seek only an "interim solution" to the current impasse, but government spokesmen as well as some Palestinian officials have suggested that almost all options could be on the table including, perhaps, recognition in some roundabout form if in return Israel would withdraw to the 1967 borders and close all settlements in the West Bank. "Hamas has made significant strides to evolve, which have so far not been internationally acknowledged," says Nicolas Pelham, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
If the rockets don't stop, though, the borders will stay closed, and the Israelis will continue their artillery barrages. And as focused as Hamas must be on establishing international ties, it must also watch rival factions at home, particularly Fatah. Already Haniya's administration is sparring with President Mahmoud Abbas over control of Palestinian security forces.
Resolving these problems will require a subtlety that so far seems in short supply. At a rally in Jabalya refugee camp on Friday, Haniya addressed a crowd of thousands, making no policy statements but instead trying to gird them for future struggles. "We are facing an unholy alliance led by the American Administration to cut aid to the poor and oppressed Palestinian people," he said. "We will not give in, and attempts to isolate the government will fail." After he finished speaking, a throng surrounded his car. He drove slowly away, supported, exalted, but with his thoughts and plans, much like Hamas', still a mystery.