Hamas reaches out, tries to shore up popularity

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement has politicians sweeping streets to show community spirit, activists distributing chocolates and cards signed “from Hamas with love” and police officers visiting homes and schools to soften the often harsh image of the security forces.

The Islamic militants — who mark the anniversary of their movement’s 1987 founding on Tuesday — say the outreach is simply a way to reconnect with Gazans after more than three years in sole control of Gaza. They deny they have been losing ground, though one poll suggests support for the group has been slashed in half since its 2006 election victory.

The need to shore up popularity highlights the dilemma that has vexed Hamas since it seized Gaza from internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007: In trying to be both a violent resistance movement and a responsible government, it often ends up satisfying neither its militant core constituency nor people hoping for a better life.

Since taking power, Hamas has attempted a balancing act.

It has tried to cling to its militant ideology, fearing moderation would render it a politically irrelevant lesser copy of Abbas’ pragmatic Fatah movement. But while maintaining fierce rhetoric, Hamas also largely halted attacks on Israel to avoid the punishing retaliation that makes it more difficult to govern.

An informal truce, in place since Israel’s war on Gaza two years ago, has not been enough to get Israel and Egypt to lift the border blockade they imposed after the 2007 takeover. Without this life is unlikely to return to normal, and Gazans still overwhelmingly depend on handouts and struggle with more than 30 percent unemployment.

The level of support for Hamas is difficult to gauge because Gazans are less inclined to speak freely for fear of repercussions. Hamas remains firmly in control, but some analysts say they detect growing impatience with Gaza’s isolation, as well as with Hamas attempts to enforce conservative Islamic mores and stifle dissent.

“Hamas’ popularity has been declining while in power, mostly because of the living conditions under the blockade and mistakes … such as human rights violations and restrictions in freedom of speech,” said West Bank-based pollster Walid Ladadweh, who measured a popularity drop in Gaza from 31.7 percent to 23.9 percent from summer to fall of this year. The poll of 1,200 people had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

At the height of its popularity, after winning parliament elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006, Hamas had an approval rating of just over 50 percent, according to Ladadweh’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Hamas, the Gaza branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, insists it’s more popular than ever, and intends to prove it with a mass rally Tuesday, marking the 23rd anniversary of its founding. “After 23 years, Hamas became No. 1 in the hearts of the Arab and Palestinian people,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman of the movement.

The turnout is closely watched every year, and Hamas has been working hard to ensure a large crowd. Some 200 buses, along with dozens more vans, are to deliver supporters to the site, a sandy lot in Gaza City, where 250,000 plastic chairs are being set up. Since the Hamas takeover, the annual rallies have had large turnouts on a similar scale.

In the weeks leading up to the event, Hamas tried to reach out to every Gaza family, aiming to prove that power has not made the former grassroots movement indifferent to the plight of ordinary people.

During a Muslim holiday in November, some 12,000 Hamas activists went door to door, distributing boxes of chocolate to more than 300,000 families, said Ashraf Abu Daya, a Hamas official. “We simply wanted to send a message that Hamas is still close to the street, despite being busy being in power and politics,” he said.

Each box had a holiday card signed “from Hamas with Love.”

In the run-up to the rally, Hamas politicians helped clean Gaza’s streets.

Last week, dozens of Hamas leaders and government officials, including Barhoum and Health Minister Bassem Naim, swept and shoveled dirt and debris in Omar al-Mukhtar Street, Gaza City’s main thoroughfare. In the Jebaliya refugee camp, Hamas lawmakers Mushir al-Masri and Ismail Ashqar walked the streets after sunset prayers and took notes as residents talked about their problems.

The third campaign, to last for 50 days, is aimed at improving the image of the security forces, said Col. Kamal Abul Nada, who heads the effort. He said officers have been visiting schools, mosques and clan chiefs to give talks. Police also sent out text messages with the phone numbers and e-mails of commanders so residents can lodge complaints. Officers have distributed flowers and sweets to drivers, helped farmers harvest crops and played soccer with children.

“Our aim is to erase the bad image that some ordinary people might have about the police,” the colonel said.

Reactions are mixed.

Taxi driver Marwan Abdel Fatah, used to arguing with traffic police, said he was shocked to get sweets at a police checkpoint instead of a traffic ticket, and was skeptical the bonhomie would last.

Talal Hamad, 45, who owns a warehouse for food supplies, said Hamas has done a good job, considering the tough circumstances.

But Maher, a 33-year-old Gaza shop owner and Fatah supporter who would not give his last name for fear of repercussions, said Hamas is trying to mislead the public. “Since they came to power, we have lived under blockade and no one enjoyed a good life, except for Hamas people,” he said.