The Gaza War

The Gaza Paradox: Hamas Has Little Support, but the War Has a Lot

The ceasefire is over. The war begins again. For most Gazans, the struggle is not about Islamism or destroying Israel, it’s about ending the blockade—no matter what it takes.

Badi Khlif/Reuters

GAZA CITY, Gaza — From the porches of their bombed-out homes to barbershops where men got haircuts for the first time since the war started, Gazans made the most of a 72-hour ceasefire after almost a month of devastating bombardment by Israel. Yet when the ceasefire ended, and Israel offered to renew, Hamas started the war again.

The resumption of this tragic fighting reflects a fundamental paradox in Gaza: Hamas, which is not very popular as a government, knows it only has credibility when it is standing up to Israel. And that’s true even if the results are, by any conventional measure, disastrous.

Halfway through the temporary lull, as negotiations in Cairo failed to yield any tangible relief from the Israeli blockade, Hamas announced it would resume attacks when the clock ran out on Friday morning.

Then Hamas set out to prove it has the support of masses of Gazans after all they’ve been through by staging a mass demonstration. It was a tactic designed to force Israeli concessions before talks break down.

But the masses didn’t turn out. And what’s increasingly apparent is that while Gazans, even in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, vow they are ready to keep fighting, and keep suffering, until the blockade is lifted—and support Hamas for fighting—they don’t actually like Hamas very much, blaming it for years of high-handed rule and low-quality governance.

So Hamas radio spent Thursday morning playing resistance ballads and calling on people to show their support in the streets. Blue-shirted, bearded policemen were out clearing roads for protesters and directing traffic for the first time since the war started. But only a few thousand of the party faithful turned out.

The brief carnivalesque demonstration festooned with green flags was organized around an address by leading Hamas official Mushir Al Masri, who proclaimed from the podium, “We are here to show support for the Palestinian negotiating committee in Cairo and the resistance.” (Perfunctory applause.)

In the audience, a 32-year-old mother of two, Reida Zahar, told me, “We are here to tell the world that despite all that has happened we will resist until we get our rights.” She was sitting with a group of women on the edge of the rally, a green scarf over her black hejab, and spoke in fluent English about how the blockade prevented her from going to the United Kingdom for a master’s degree. She has been staying with family, she said, since rockets from Israeli drones burst through the walls of her house.

Few people in Gaza believe Israel will make any concessions if they do not show their determination to resist. But, many people around the square where the rally was held opted to take advantage of the open cafes and stores rather than listening to the orators of Hamas. And the effort to return to something like normal life so quickly after apocalyptic devastation is a reminder, if any were needed, that the stubborn resilience of the people here is not built on Islamist speechifying. It’s founded in a deep-seated refusal to surrender. Period.

In a barbershop with blown-out windows in the utterly devastated neighborhood of Al Shajaya, men gather and swap stories of the destruction they found upon returning home. For most it’s their first haircut and shave of the war. While the streets outside are filled with craters where their houses once stood, there is a sense of tranquil comfort among the cracked walls covered in kitschy beige wallpaper and in the creaky pneumatic chairs.

Salama al Sersawi leans on a bench, waiting to get his mound of matted hair reined in. At 23 years old he has lived under the blockade for almost a third of his life and he is fed up.

“The siege needs to end, it’s like I’m dying every day,” he says, exhaustion deep in his voice. “If the siege is not removed, we need to go back to war.”

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A few blocks away, sitting on the only front step in his Al Shajaya neighborhood, 57-year-old Nofal Abu Al Khair slouches on a chair in front of his brother’s home that only has the front wall left. His own house was behind his brother’s, but it’s been flattened. The whole neighborhood is now nothing more than piles of rubble and scattered single-wall structures marked with tank and machine-gun fire.

Nofal says he has five children and his entire life has been spent in this place. “I want an agreement,” Abu Al Khair says. But not an agreement at any cost. “I want to see the siege removed more than the end of the war.”