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How did Hamas lose Gazan hearts and minds? Not the way you might think. Few Gazans blame Hamas for the most damaging events that have happened on its watch: the siege, the trade embargo, the three-week Israeli military assault in late 2008 and early 2009 that killed 1,400 residents and left tens of thousands homeless. Israel's efforts to drive a wedge between Hamas and its supporters have consistently failed: Gazans reliably side with Hamas over Israel.
But they are less forgiving of Hamas for Gaza's international isolation, the pariah status the Islamists defiantly embraced when the West withdrew aid because of Hamas' terrorist activities. In an enclave so difficult to leave, the isolation "makes you feel that you're a less-deserving human," one young blogger says.
For most of its existence, Hamas didn't have to deal with the outside world. The party's roots were in charity, dispensing food and medicine to Gaza's poor in the 1970s. Israel encouraged the group, viewing it as a counterweight to Fatah, then a militant party led by Yasser Arafat. By the late 1980s, however, Hamas had passed its infamous charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and had begun guerrilla operations against the Jewish state. Its signature tactic was suicide bombing, which it used repeatedly to derail attempts to resolve the conflict by any means except violence. And yet when elections were held in 2006, Hamas decided to get on the ballot.
The party's unexpected victory put cadres of solemn, bearded men with little political or administrative experience in charge of running a government. Proceeding by trial and error, they got high marks for making the streets safe and ending a period of carjackings, kidnappings and general insecurity. But they never came to grips with the Gazan economy, which lies in ruins, and they've failed to live up to their promise of wasta-free government.
Even party stalwarts agree that they've lost the street. "The majority of people want a change, yes," says Ahmed Yusuf, a former deputy foreign minister for Hamas who now runs a think tank called House of Wisdom. "They are not happy with the way Hamas is governing Gaza. Wherever you look is miserable life." Forty percent of Gazans live in poverty. The rate of unemployment is approaching 50%, among the highest in the world, and is likely to worsen as the population of 1.6 million doubles in the next 20 years. "Because they believe in God, they don't think a lot about the future," says Gaza economist Omar Shaban, who heads the Pal-Think think tank. "You won't find someone in Hamas who is thinking about 2045. They say, 'Oh, God will provide.'"
Or Iran will. Gaza relies so heavily on handouts from sympathetic outsiders, including Iran and Syria, that a recent tax hike was attributed to an interruption of the monthly stipend the government is said to get from Tehran. No one knows for sure: the Hamas government doesn't publish a budget.
Hamas did itself no favors with its response to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. in September. The effort was led by Palestinian Authority President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas. Irked that it was not consulted beforehand, Hamas banned demonstrations supporting it, casting itself as one more hurdle, along with the U.S. and Israel, to statehood. Indeed, the timing of the Shalit deal gave the appearance of an Islamist movement scrambling to take back the spotlight.
If any of this worries Tahir al-Nounou, he doesn't show it. The official Hamas spokesman has a preternaturally jolly demeanor and a ready reply for every criticism. The Arab Spring, he claims, stands to benefit Islamist movements, not least Hamas' parent, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As for opinion polls, he points out that those in 2005 also predicted that Hamas would lose. He notes that a record number of young Gazans memorized the Koran this year, calling it evidence of the party's strength in that key demographic. And the reports of a financial crisis are simply wrong, al-Nounou says. All Hamas needs to do, he says, is adjust its priorities. Last year, every family in Gaza got a box of sweets to mark the Muslim holidays. "Now instead of giving sweets, we can pave the streets." Another promise likely to turn sour.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 24, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.