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It's more than two years since the militant Palestinian group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip and since then, Hamas has been consolidating its political power. But the conflict with Israel earlier this year, and Gaza's isolation, are taking a toll on Hamas' popularity.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro traveled to Gaza City.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last week in Gaza, Hamas police were training on the beaches during the day. At night, the military wing of Hamas, the al-Qassam Brigades, were drilling their members on how to move through Gaza City's crowded neighborhoods in case of another confrontation with Israel. Inside the building where Hamas houses its ministries, offices are bustling. It's clear that Hamas is in control of the Gaza Strip. But when asked whether or not Hamas still has the support of the people, Hamas' Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Youssef sounds defensive.
Mr. AHMED YOUSSEF (Deputy Foreign Minister, Hamas): If we have, like, six months, actually, we will be able to convince our people. Yes, the people are suffering because of sanctions, because of Gaza under siege. They understand at the same time why they are suffering. So the blame is not for Hamas.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gaza-based analyst Mokhaimar Abu Seada says that's not true.
Mr. MOKHAIMAR ABU SEADA (Analyst): Hamas' popularity here in the Gaza Strip has declined.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the 2006 elections in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas won a decisive victory running on a platform of change and reform. In 2007, it forcibly evicted the rival Fatah party from Gaza. Abu Seada says, in a way, Hamas has been a victim of its own success. It now has to be accountable to the people it governs. And many people, he says, are starting to blame the militant group for their most recent troubles.
Mr. ABU SEADA: The war, the destruction that was inflicted on Gaza, some of the Palestinians basically blame Hamas for what happened.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last winter, the Israeli army launched an offensive in Gaza to stop Palestinian rocket fire on nearby Israeli communities. It caused widespread destruction in Gaza. The economy is moribund, unemployment rife. Israel has tight restrictions on what can come into and out of the Gaza Strip. Most Gazans rely on what is delivered through an illicit network of tunnels under the border with Egypt. Hiba Abu Hamda comes from a family of Hamas supporters, and she says she no longer backs the militant group.
Ms. HIBA ABU HAMDA: People are thinking that it will be for the better, but unfortunately, day by day, it's getting worse. They are not thinking about the interests of their people. They're just thinking about their own interests. They forget about the people. And they're thinking about how to gain more money or how to gain more authority.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says Hamas has improved life in one vital area.
Ms. ABU HAMDA: When they came, they tried to control the situation, the security and they succeeded in that because we felt security.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, Hibu Abu Hamda says she would not vote for Hamas.
Ms. ABU HAMDA: It's very clear that we gave them a chance for Hamas, but they're trying to do their best, but it's not enough.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hamas still retains a strong grassroots operation that has only grown more powerful over the past few years.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A group of women in headscarves are bent over the Muslim holy book, while a teacher shows them how to properly chant verses from the Quran.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The women's working circle in Gaza City was founded by Hamas' spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by the Israelis in 2004. It has a number of outreach programs in the community here. Director Najah al-Batnege says she believes people see Hamas' good works in Gaza and appreciate them.
Ms. NAJAH AL-BATNEGE (Director, Women's Working Circle): (Through translator) Hamas is the legal government of Gaza. Hamas is still very popular here among the people. If you go to any Hamas events, you will see they are crowded and full of supporters. The bad conditions here are not due to Hamas, but due to the Israeli siege.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for Palestinian elections to take place in January in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas responded by saying the election call was illegal and would not be observed in Gaza, although Hamas officials say they might hold their own independent poll.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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