Who’s in charge?

The decline of Hamas may result in a new wave of chaos

ARE the tables turning in Gaza? Whenever Egypt wanted to stop Israel and the Palestinian enclave fighting in the past, they would call the Islamist movement, Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007. In the last round of mutual shelling that began on March 12th, the most serious bout of violence for more than a year, it got in touch with another even more extreme Islamist group, Islamic Jihad. Within minutes, calm was restored. Islamic Jihad thus claimed credit for the fighting—and for the subsequent truce.

Within 20 minutes, says an Islamic Jihad veteran, his group fired 130 rockets from underground launch-pads at a stretch of Israeli land eight kilometres (five miles) inside Israel. “We are sending a message,” he said. “Next time the Israelis assassinate a Gazan, [Binyamin] Netanyahu knows we will hit Tel Aviv,” he added, referring to Israel’s prime minister.

Hamas has lost several regional patrons, notably Syria and Egypt, while Islamic Jihad seems to be gaining appeal. Some Arabs prefer its dogged determination to fight Israel from Palestinian soil to Hamas’s pan-Islamic vision and its support for the various arms of its parent organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt and Syria. Iran now seems to be providing Islamic Jihad with dollops of aid, plus weaponry that is more advanced than anything Hamas can field. Flush with Iranian cash, Islamic Jihad has been trying to take the lead in dispensing charity during Gaza’s Muslim festivals. A Salafist preacher was recently so incensed by the group’s ties to Iran that he called its adherents rafida, or rejectionists, a favourite Sunni term for insulting Iran, because Shias are said to have rejected Islam’s founding caliphs. For his pains, the preacher was roughed up.

As Islamic Jihad waxes, Hamas may be waning. While Gaza’s biggest employers—the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the UN—are so cash-strapped that they are all cutting pay to their staff, Islamic Jihad, which claims to have some 5,000 fighters, has publicly increased it. But with at least 20,000 fighters under its command, Hamas is still by far the largest force in the enclave. As it proved with a rally on March 23rd to commemorate Israel’s assassination a decade ago of its then guiding light, Ahmed Yassin, it can still muster a massive show of support.

But it is being severely weakened by Egypt, which is stifling all movement across Gaza’s southern border. The terminal at Rafah, the sole border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, has been closed for at least six weeks, though the authorities in Cairo say they will temporarily open it for a few days on March 29th. Nearly all the tunnels, through which supplies into Gaza have come, have been closed by Egypt, too.

So Hamas is bleeding. It has lost the revenue provided by tariffs on incoming Egyptian petrol and raw material. Israel now supplies fuel at three times the old Egyptian price and refuses to let in much else; 90% of the enclave’s building projects have stopped. Unable to pay Gaza’s civil service, Hamas is looking stingy. To save money on petrol, Gaza’s police have taken to asking Gazans who ask them to investigate a crime for the taxi fare. The police, once ubiquitous, are now rarely seen parked at junctions.

So who is in charge? The answer is still Hamas. No single group has the muscle to replace it, yet. But rumours abound that it has resorted to borrowing cash from Islamic Jihad. Israel and its allies may come to worry that, by continuing to squeeze Hamas, they are throwing the strip into the clutches of Iran’s proxies, or worse still, that Gaza may find it has no government at all—and that a wave of mayhem may result.

March 29th 2014