GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- On Friday, inside the Great Mosque of the Al Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, a man stood below the pulpit shaking hands with people standing in a long line. Wearing a tailored grey suit, he warmly welcomed everyone who approached to congratulate him. The man was Ismail Haniya, the 59-year old prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza. The people seeking his blessing were the hundreds of young bearded men, local politicians and elderly Palestinians who had gone to the Great Mosque for prayer.
It was the first Muslim Friday prayer after the Wednesday cease-fire between Israel and Hamas ended the weeklong conflict that killed 166 Palestinians and six Israelis. Scores of believers had convened to listen to the sermon given by Ali Karra Daagi, the imam of the Great Mosque, who echoed the Hamas notion that the short war had been a success. “Victory was bestowed upon us [...] now time has come for unity,” the bespectacled imam declared.
The word “reconciliation” resounds like a mantra here in Gaza since the early days of Operation Pillar of Defense, the English name of the operation given by the Israeli Army which began on Nov. 14, when the air force targeted a car transporting Ahmed Jaabari, the acting commander of Hamas’ military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades. Jaabari, who died in the missile strike, had masterminded the abduction in 2006 of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit was released five years later in exchange for over a thousand Hamas members imprisoned in Israel.
By that, Gazans do not mean reconciliation with Israel. They mean within the Palestinian ranks, long beset by factional rivalry.
Last Monday, a call for national unity was made at the funeral procession of the Al-Dalu family, 10 members of which, including mother, father and four children, were killed when two missiles hit a building in Nasser Street, in the center of Gaza City.
This was the first such call since talks between Hamas and Fatah, the party in control of the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank, went cold last March.
“Look, today all the factions are in attendance, Hamas, Al’Aqsa and Salah al-Din Brigades, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Fatah,” said Ahmad Awad, a friend of one of the victims.
Later that day, an envoy of the Palestinian National Authority entered the Gaza Strip to meet the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a group which claimed responsibility for many of the hundreds of rockets fired at Israel. “We are brothers, under attack” said the envoy, Nabil Shaat, during his visit. A similar message was delivered by Mohamed El-Katatni, the speaker of the Egyptian parliament, on his arrival, which opened a series of high-profile missions to Gaza by envoys of various Arab countries and Turkey.
Beyond the immediate ceasefire brokered by Egypt, the fulfillment of the other elements of the truce, such as the lifting of an economic blockade on Gaza, remains to be seen. An offshoot of the conflict is that the scores of poor and unemployed men walking the muddy alleys of the Al Shati camp place their full trust in Hamas, whose charity organization was ubiquitous in Gaza even before Hamas won the 2006 elections in Gaza. Later, after a bloody feud with Fatah's armed wing, the radical Islamists got sole control of the Strip.
The Hamas propaganda machine worked quickly after the cease-fire to send all Palestinians, including rival factions, the message: This is our triumph over Israel. The name itself chosen by Hamas for the barrage of rockets it launched against Israel is evocative: Hijarat al sajil, literally “stones of baked clay," or, in an alternative translation from classical Arabic, “stones from the streams of Hell."
The reference is to the sura of the elephant, a chapter of the Quran telling of divine help in battling the formidable army of a foreign king, who was determined to obliterate the Kaaba, the most sacred place in Islam, the cube-shaped building in Mecca toward which Muslims pray.
Yet, putting aside political gains and public rejoicing, the question for people here is: Will there be an improvement for Gaza’s population, which has suffered heavy casualties and lives inside a small sliver of land with an economy in shambles?
According to Hamas spokesman Taher Innunu, there will be a window next week to understand if the embargo will be lifted. According to sources on the ground, there are ongoing negotiations over the details, i.e. which products will be allowed into and out of Gaza and the free circulation of local residents toward Israel and Egypt.
“Maybe more trucks will be allowed to shuttle between the two sides, but overall this war is going to bring about few or no changes,” said Talaal Okal, a political commentator in Gaza City. He insisted that it will be crucial to see the outcome of the Palestinian bid to obtain the status of observer member at the United Nations, set for Nov. 29. “This will be the best card for (Palestinian National Authority) President Mahmoud Abbas to play, the other being the internal reconciliation,” said Okal.
But for now, the reality on the ground in Gaza is that Hamas is stronger. “As Hamas government, we believe that the truce is a great outcome produced by our resistance. Israel realized it could not eventually reach its goals and so accepted Palestinian conditions to a cease-fire. Israel had never before agreed to any proposal,” said Innunu.
Hamas may use this political capital to push Abbas to call for new elections, including a presidential election, which is at least three years overdue. Winning both Gaza and the West Bank at the polls would not come as a surprise for a movement that has been enjoying growing support also outside the Strip. The "reconciliation" in Palestine would so turn into a reunification of the two splinters of the Palestinian territories -- and under the green banners of the Islamic radicals.