On Patrol in Shijaiyah, the toughest neighborhood in Gaza City, Lieut. Naim Ashraf Mushtaha, 31, an officer of the Hamas Executive Force, spots a man in civilian clothes carrying an M-16 assault rifle and walking through the street suqs in broad daylight. His officers quickly encircle the suspect and demand that he identify himself and turn over the weapon. The man turns out to be a member of one of the neighborhood’s most powerful clans, and he refuses to give up his gun. “What’s my name, boys?” he shouts to the gathering crowd of curious onlookers. “Mohassi Abbas!” they shout back. “See, everyone knows who I am,” says the gunman. “I don’t care who you are,” says Mushtaha calmly, without raising his voice or his weapon. “No one is above the law.”
The rule of law has returned to Gaza. Just two months ago, this beachfront slice of sand dunes and concrete jungles, home to about 1.5 million Palestinians, was one of the most dangerous places on earth. In June, after a few days of internecine warfare, Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, took control of Gaza from its rival, Fatah. Since then, Gaza has been under siege. Almost all shipments except for basic humanitarian supplies are barred from entering, and almost nothing comes out. The blockade is part of an Israeli and American strategy to isolate Hamas in the hope that Palestinians will turn away from its Islamist leaders, who have never recognized Israel, and toward Fatah, which is willing to restart the peace process. So far, the plan isn’t working. With a free hand to govern as it pleases, Hamas is building popular support and military capability that may well outlast the international blockade.
Security is key to support for Hamas. Within a week of the takeover, crime, drug smuggling, tribal clashes and kidnappings had largely disappeared. According to human-rights groups, the ability of the Executive Force to achieve such a result is an indictment of the corruption and criminal collusion at the top of the Fatah-dominated security services that once controlled Gaza. “For the last year and a half, there has been an orchestrated escalation of chaos by some Banana Republic officers to show that Hamas does not have control of Gaza,” said Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. “Gaza became like Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Thugs and gangsters were ruling, and some were supported and protected by our own security forces.”
There have been isolated cases of civil rights abuses by the Executive Force since the takeover. But Hamas hasn’t set up Shari’a courts. Without any help from the regular police, prosecutors and judges–all of whom have been barred from returning to work by the Palestinian government–Hamas is slowly trying to train itself in the administration of Palestinian law. Mushtaha and his officers spend most of their time delivering subpoenas and telling the families of wanted men to turn the suspects in. In Gazan neighborhoods, everyone knows everyone else, and there’s no place to hide: crooks certainly can’t flee to Israel.
With peace on the streets, civil society is returning to Gaza. On Friday night in downtown Gaza City, the streets are clogged with motorcades taking newlyweds and their families to seaside banquet halls. Just one thing is missing: celebratory gunfire. Gazan weddings were once as dangerous as firefights, until Hamas banned the practice of partying with firearms. Now Executive Force troops arrest anyone who gets carried away with an AK. And if Hamas wedding crashers can’t find the gunmen, they arrest the groom until the culprits turn themselves in.
Nor has been no cultural crackdown since Hamas took over. Gaza has long been more religious and conservative than the rest of Palestinian society–alcohol disappeared from public view here long ago. But secular women who walk the streets of Gaza City without headscarves or veils say they were more likely to be harassed by criminals in the old Gaza than by religious conservatives today. Rumors that Hamas is ordering barbers not to shave beards are just that. I got mine shaved off by Hossein Hussuna, the barber of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, who told me that most of Haniya’s eight sons are clean shaven.
Gaza’s beaches may be packed and its streets safe, but its factories are shut, and its stores have almost no customers. Mohammed Telbani owns the largest factory in Gaza, making cookies and ice cream. But he can’t get his raw materials and packaging through the Israeli embargo, and he can’t send his finished products to the West Bank, where distributors have started buying cookies from Lebanon instead. “I’ve worked on creating that market for 30 years, and now it’s gone,” Telbani said. The economic damage caused by the siege is immense, with unemployment at around 44%; about 80% of the population receives food aid from U.N. agencies. Nasser el-Helou, a hotel owner and a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce, said the Gazan economy would collapse within weeks if the siege continues.
Yet Gazan business owners like Telbani and el-Helou–practical, apolitical men–are unanimous in their criticism of Israel rather than Hamas for economic problems. “If we are free, we should control our own borders,” said el-Helou. “But we do not, so the full responsibility is on the Israeli side.” And business leaders point to a paradox of the embargo; it is destroying the only class of Palestinians who looked favorably on Israel. Most of those in commerce speak Hebrew and have–or used to have–Israeli clients, partners and friends. They had once looked forward to the day when there would be no trade barriers between an independent Palestine and an Israel with which it was at peace. “The majority of Gazans do not like Israel,” said Amassi Ghazi, the chairman of a company that imports building materials. “Until now, only the private sector had good relations with Israel. So please open the border before all Gaza will be enemies of Israel.”
Some Gazans take being Israel’s enemies seriously. At midnight, at what used to be a training ground for the Palestinian coastal police, a couple of dozen men are practicing small-arms drills. They are in the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas, and ready to bolt at a moment’s notice if they get a warning that Israeli warplanes are overhead. But since Fatah was driven out of Gaza, said Abu Ahmed, the commander of the unit, there have been fewer collaborators spying on Hamas for Israel, and Israeli strikes have hence dwindled. Qassam Brigade soldiers have been able to operate with relative impunity. Later Abu Ahmed takes me to a Qassam Brigade position a couple of hundred yards from the Erez crossing into Israel. Soon an Israeli surveillance drone starts buzzing overhead, and we leave quickly, back over the sand dunes into Gaza City. On the streets patrolled by Mushtaha and his men, all may seem peaceful. But at night, the long war between Hamas and Israel continues.