Tarnished by Misrule, Hamas May Struggle in Elections

GAZA CITY, Gaza (AP) -
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, prior to a meeting in Istanbul. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool, File)

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh once pledged to live on “zeit wa zaatar”— olive oil and dried herbs — after he led the Islamic terrorist group to victory on a message of armed struggle and austerity during 2006 Palestinian elections.

But he has since left the impoverished Gaza Strip and, along with some other Hamas leaders, is living in luxury as he splits his time between Turkey and Qatar. With new elections planned this spring, Hamas will struggle to campaign as a scrappy underdog that is above trading its principles for material comforts.

It remains to be seen whether the elections decreed by President Mahmoud Abbas will actually be held. Much depends on whether his secular Fatah party and Hamas can reach some kind of agreement overcoming the bitter divisions that have prevented previous attempts to hold a vote.

But it’s clear that Hamas’ image among many Palestinians, even onetime supporters, has suffered since 2007, when the group seized Gaza from Abbas’ forces in a week of bloody street battles.

Since then, Hamas has established its own quasi-state with its own civil service and security forces. But it has struggled to provide even basic services while its attention and resources have been focused on war with Israel.

That some of its leaders have left Gaza has not helped. Hamas leaders who ascended the ranks when it was an underground group have traded their street clothes and motorbikes for business suits and shiny SUVs. Some, like Haniyeh, have decamped to luxury hotels in Turkey and Qatar, leaving lower-ranking officials and ordinary Palestinians to deal with the consequences of their policies.

“Every year, the situation is getting from bad to worse,” said Youssef Ahmed, who works in a food stall in an east Gaza City market. “People don’t have money to buy the basic things.”

Still, while Gazans grumble privately, they rarely speak out against Hamas, which has a history of locking up critics.

Haniyeh, who became Palestinian prime minister after the 2006 election and is now the overall leader of Hamas, left Gaza in 2019 for what Hamas said was a temporary foreign tour. He has yet to return.

A December poll carried out by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found support for the parties was close — 38% for Hamas, compared to 34% for Fatah — but predicted that Haniyeh would handily defeat Abbas in a presidential race. The group surveyed 1,270 Palestinians across Yehuda and Shomron and Gaza, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Assuming elections are held, “it looks like (Fatah and Hamas) will dominate the next parliament, but neither one will have a majority,” said Khalil Shikaki, the head of the center. He said independent candidates and smaller factions will win the remaining seats.