Tobias Buck
The Financial Times (Opinion)
March 20, 2008 - 6:14pm

Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group, has emerged from the recent Israeli offensive against its stronghold in the Gaza Strip more deeply entrenched and with broader public backing than before, according to independent analysts and a poll published this week.

Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip last June, following violent clashes with the rival Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Israel has since sought to weaken the group by imposing drastic economic sanctions against the territory and through repeated military incursions into the strip. An Israeli offensive earlier this month claimed the lives of 131 Palestinians, including many civilians.

Yet according to a report published yesterday by the International Crisis Group, the military and economic pressure as well as the group’s political isolation have failed to loosen Hamas’ grip on Gaza. ”The Islamist movement has come close to establishing an effective monopoly on the use of force and has a near-monopoly on open political activity,” it notes.

”Those intending to undermine Hamas have instead given it an assist,” the report adds. Though it noted that Hamas had employed harsh tactics and violence to strengthen its position, the ICG report said that Hamas ”can invoke the siege to justify its more ruthless practices”.

Hamas’ defiance of Israeli pressure appears to have also boosted the group’s standing among Palestinians both in the West Bank and in Gaza. A poll released this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that Hamas would win 35 per cent if elections were held now, up four points since December. With a poll rating of 42 per cent, Fatah still has an edge, but its lead over Hamas has been slashed from 18 points to just seven over the last three months.

The poll also found that Ismail Haniyeh, the former Hamas prime minister, now has a slight lead over Mr Abbas if presidential elections were held, a drastic reversal compared to December, when the incumbent had a 19 point lead.

Speaking in Gaza on Wednesday, Taher El Nouno, the spokesman for Mr Haniyeh and a Hamas official, claimed the Islamist group’s strong poll showing reflected the fact that it ”returned security to the Gaza Strip” and governed in a transparent manner.

But Mr El Nouno stressed that Hamas was prepared to end the stand-off and form a coalition with Fatah. ”We are ready for a government of national unity and for negotiations [with Fatah] without preconditions.”


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