Hamas Struts in Gaza

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For years, the Islamist gunmen of Hamas have been the kings of Gaza. But they ruled from the shadows, only venturing out at night, clad in black masks, nervously keeping a finger on the trigger even when they reluctantly agreed to talk to a journalist. But on a recent day in Gaza City's Zeitoun neighborhood, two white jeeps roll up to an auto shop trailing the green flags of Hamas. The burly, bearded drivers step out, clad in black T-shirts, olive pants, and matching green Hamas baseball caps decorated with the opening verse of the Koran. Since Israel's withdrawal, these gunmen of Hamas's Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade can go about their business such routine tasks as checking the air pressure in their tires.

It's all too brazen even for the weak-willed Palestinian Authority. Last week, the Authority declared it would prevent armed groups from carrying weapons and, over the weekend, some of its policemen even tried to disarm a carload of Hamas men. A gunfight broke out that spread until it killed three people. Hamas leaders threaten civil war unless the Palestinian Authority backs off. Civil war is unlikely, as is the prospect of Hamas disarming before January elections, as the U.S. urges and Israel insists. The new model for Hamas is the Lebanese group Hizballah, which maintains a large militia while also sitting in the country's government.

A sure sign of Hamas's emergence from the shadows is its new media office in central Gaza. Thickset, bearded men lean against the walls, watchfully. The only furniture in the otherwise empty suite is a brand new desk, behind which sits Sami Abu Zuhry, a trim 38-year-old history Professor recently named Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip. Abu Zuhry rejects suggestions that Hamas wants to take over Gaza now the Israelis are gone. "We don't want control," he says. "We want elections."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has promised that A parliamentary poll will be held in January, and he negotiated a deal early this year with Hamas to maintain "calmness" until then. But Abbas already delayed those elections from July, because crushing Hamas victories in Gaza's municipal polls convinced his own Fatah party that voters would punish it for its corrupt regime in the parliamentary race, too.

Talks on extending the "calmness" period are planned for the coming weeks, but Hamas isn't keen to give Abbas more rope unless he can secure the release of prisoners from Israeli jails — something Israel is unlikely to do unless Hamas disarms. "Under present conditions, we wouldn't be ready to continue with the calmness," says Abu Zuhry.

If the "calmness" ends, Israel fears Hamas may launch new operations from the West Bank. Hamas believes its bombs and rockets drove the Israelis out of Gaza, its sees little reason not to continue the same strategy in the West Bank.

Many Gazans see Israel's unilateral withdrawal last month as evidence that Hamas's campaign of violence against the soldiers and settlers proved more effective than the Palestinian Authority's negotiations. Tens of thousands of Gazans have driven south since the Israelis left to see the places where the settlements stood. To do so is to visit a landscape entirely new and strange, with ploughed over mud where army posts stood and settlers' demolished homes punctuating the sand dunes with bright piles of concrete.

It's also a Hamas landscape. The gate to one former settlement, Kfar Darom, is painted with Hamas graffiti proclaiming, "Welcome to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin City," in honor of the group's founder, killed in an Israeli missile attack in February last year. Eight kids wearing green Hamas baseball caps jog out of the biggest settlement, Neveh Dekalim, dragging a looted telephone pole. At the gate of the southernmost settlement, Rafiah Yam, a youth pulls an uprooted banana tree toward his home in neighboring Rafah.

A few of Abbas's soldiers are posted lazily at the entrance to what used to be the main Israeli settlement bloc. While the citizens of Gaza rip apart the remains of the settlements and tour cheerily around in trucks emblazoned with Hamas flags, the soldiers are making afternoon tea and sheltering from the sun.