Discontent but no real threat to Hamas rule in Gaza

GAZA Mon May 3, 2010 9:26am EDT

GAZA (Reuters) - The Palestinians of the Gaza Strip may be unhappy about new taxes imposed by their Hamas rulers but they are unlikely to stage a revolt that could threaten the Islamist movement's iron grip on the enclave, analysts say.

Critics and rivals say there is anger and discontent among Gaza's 1.5 million people, not only over tax measures but also over a Hamas security crackdown on public freedoms, which is partly political and partly religion-driven.

Hamas recently slapped a hefty tax on cigarettes, broke up a teenage hip-hop concert and pulled in political activists who were handing out leaflets on the street.

The cigarette tax is intended to bring in revenue. The music event was closed for so-called "morality" reasons. The leaflet men were plainly staging a political challenge.

Rivals said Hamas has also begun assigning uninhabited apartments to its members, while some Gazans still live in tents after losing their homes in last year's war with Israel.

Analysts say the ruling group also faces growing tension over its desire to maintain an undeclared ceasefire with Israel while smaller militant factions want to keep attacking.

But Hamas, with an estimated 25,000 armed fighters and a security apparatus keeping watch on dissidents, has no need to fear an imminent rebellion. People are too scared, they say.

JUST RUMOURS

The administration of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who denies any plan to create an Islamic theocracy in Gaza, says it is aware of popular discontent. But it blames the "poisonous rumor-mill" of its secular rival Fatah and others.

Hamas fighters drove Fatah forces out of Gaza in 2007 and seized power, after the dominant Palestinian faction of President Mahmoud Abbas stripped Haniyeh of his office.

Their mutual hostility has split the Palestinian independence movement to its foundations and despite a year of Egyptian mediation there is no sign of reconciliation.

Unlike Abbas, Hamas opposes a comprehensive Middle East settlement. If by some miracle there were to be peace with Israel next week, it could only be with the Palestinians of the West Bank. Gaza to all intents is out of the equation.

But Hamas is a secretive organization whose words can be at odds with its actions. It has repeatedly denied banning rocket attacks against Israel, but the attacks have pretty much ceased.

Hamas also denies any financial crisis, although many government employees say they have had only half their normal salary for the past two months -- for the first time since the 2007 takeover.

Deputy finance minister Ismail Mahfouz has advised public sector employees that those with salaries below 1,500 Israeli shekels ($400) will be paid by the end of this week and those with over 4,000 shekels ($1,000) will get half of it.

NO TRADE, NO INCOME

Gaza has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt for three years. Heavily dependent on foreign aid, its modest economy is in ruins and unemployment is somewhere over 50 percent. Iranian-backed Hamas is blacklisted in the West as a terrorist group and has no normal access to funds as a recognized government.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank pays the wages of 77,000 people listed as public employees and pays the check for the fuel that runs Gaza's lone power plant, as well as providing medical equipment and other services for the public benefit.

Analysts say Hamas obviously has a current cash shortage, which may be due to a crackdown by Egyptian security to halt the flow of suitcases of Iranian cash into Gaza, or a loss of tariff revenue from the tunnel trade as Egypt closes it down with an underground barrier, or both.

But Hamas says the salary problem is due to "technical reasons." It points out that the government's payroll has risen from 13,000 employees three years ago to 34,000 today. And it is undertaking costly infrastructure projects.

"The government will announce the launching of several new projects very soon," said spokesman Taher Al-Nono. "There is no financial crisis. There are a number of technical procedures that are being taken at this stage."

Palestinian analyst Ibrahim Abrash says Hamas "believes that the people should share with them the invoice of the blockade which was imposed when they came to power."

"They know their recent measures were not popular but at the same time they are in crisis because getting money in has become more difficult," he said.

Hamas security men last week briefly detained members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who were handing out leaflets criticizing the government and warning of a popular revolt should Hamas impose further "social and political pressure" on the people.

Faction leader Jamil Mezher said the PFLP, whose group is aligned with Hamas' rival Fatah, would continue to defend the cause of Gaza residents in a peaceful way.

"We do not wish to reach the point of clashes. We are calling for peaceful popular struggle to achieve the demands of Gaza community," he said.

Spokesman al-Nono said the PFLP accusations were "unfair."

"We have information and evidence of a Fatah media machine that is working day and night to spread rumors. We have even arrested some men involved in this campaign," he said.

But Nono admitted that some municipalities had "made mistakes" in tax-collection recently, using outdated information about businesses in Gaza, and these were being corrected.

"We are fighting rumors by publishing the truth and the government is putting more money into public services than the tax money collected," he said. The government had paved a major street in Gaza and granted $2.5 million in assistance to 25,000 unemployed workers, Nono added.

Analyst Talal Okal believes criticism of Hamas will continue and may give rise to limited protests, but any real threat to Hamas' authority is unlikely. The group does not tolerate dissent and rivals are wary of challenging it on the streets.

"If Hamas tried to prevent these (protest) activities -- which they would -- the impact would be negative and it will lead to further tension," Okal said.

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