By CLAYTON E. SWISHER
The green flag of Hamas flies everywhere in Gaza -- from Rafah to Gaza City to the Jubailya refugee camp. Signs of support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or his Fatah movement are nowhere, save for some old, faded posters of Abbas and Arafat.
It was a sobering contrast from my first visit there two years ago and is a sign that the Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority does not command the grassroots support necessary to fill the power vacuum once Israel withdraws from Gaza in August.
Signs of the PA's weakness in Gaza abound. Locals seem to prefer the security presence of Hamas or Islamic Jihad to the irregularly performing PA police who, partly because of low salaries, are often corrupt. In contrast, Hamas metes out justice according to Islamic (Shari'a) law. Though most in Gaza say they prefer secular democracy, they welcome Hamas' approach because they are "at least honest."
That popular appeal underscores the gains Hamas is making in Gaza. Gazans are frustrated by and contemptuous of the perceived weakness of Abu Mazen, and so is Hamas. They argue that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is merely trading Gaza for the West Bank and East Jerusalem while Abu Mazen looks on. He tells his constituents to espouse non-violence without bothering himself to roll up his sleeves and demand Palestinian self-determination in the manner of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King (before Israeli settlement expansion removes any possibility of a viable state).
Most Palestinians in Gaza believe, rightly or wrongly, that it was only armed struggle -- the kind provided by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Brigades -- that forced Israel to evacuate Gaza.
Palestinians in Gaza also complain bitterly about the lack of improvements in their daily lives. For example, 12 hours after PA Civil Affairs Minister Mohamed Dahlan told the media he had persuaded Israel to keep Rafah border with Egypt open until 8 p.m., Israel shut the border down altogether. That left hundreds of Palestinians stranded on both sides. Dahlan was left looking like a powerless clerk.
Palestinians in Gaza increasingly look to Hamas, not Fatah, for vital services, most notably jobs. Here Hamas offers a recruiting tool the Fatah-backed PA lacks: the potential for upward mobility. In contrast to cronyism, Hamas offers a meritocracy that encourages promotion to positions of responsibility.
Though Hamas refuses for now to serve in a Palestinian unity government, it does intend to compete in local Gaza parliamentary elections that are due to be held after Israel's withdrawal. Many say to let the yet untested Hamas enter the political fray and show what they can deliver as a politically vested party.
For now, the Fatah-backed PA either has to show progress in the peace process or risk losing political control of Gaza to Hamas. The U.S. administration has promised much to Abu Mazen and continues to say it is committed to advancing a Palestinian state. But not helping Abu Mazen deliver the basics in Gaza -- food, jobs, security and freedom -- is like handing the vote to Hamas.
I left Gaza with the impression that Palestinians of all stripes still accept the logic of a two-state solution but will resist it as long as they see no improvement in their living standards. Even though Abu Mazen has rejected violence and helped negotiate a truce to end the Intifada, they say their lives are as difficult as ever, and other political alternatives are badly needed.
During the four days I was in Gaza, ordinary citizens recounted tales of sorrow and hardship -- from an agonized Palestinian teacher in a refugee camp who watches his kindergarten class draw suicide bombers instead of flowers to the feisty mother of four who is herself one of just ten obstetricians in Gaza City and who delivers an averages of 34 babies a day. As the political squabbling continues between Hamas, the PA, and Israel, the doctor begged me to ask Americans to help her deliver the one thing she cannot: hope for their future.
Do we care? How the U.S. administration responds to her pleas will determine the future of Gaza and even of Middle East peace.
X Clayton Swisher is director of programs at the Middle East Institute. He is author of "The Truth About Camp David" (New York: Nation Books, 2004). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.