CAIRO — For years, Israel has treated the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas as the main danger posed by Palestinians to the security of the Jewish state.
But recent rifts inside the group — marked by the execution last month of Hamas’ military wing commander Muhammad Eshtawi for “moral and behavioral trespasses” — have eroded the organization’s standing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving it weaker than it has been in at least a decade.
It was exactly 10 years ago that Hamas won a bombshell victory in Palestinian elections, a result that many in the U.S. and Israel believed spelled trouble. If a similar vote were held today, the group’s bitter rival, Fatah, would defeat it by a margin of 39 percent to 17 percent, said Nader Said-Foqahaa, director of the Arab World for Research & Development, a public opinion survey firm based in Ramallah.
What’s more, Fatah would probably garner 45 percent in the Gaza Strip, Hamas’ traditional stronghold.
The disastrous 2014 Gaza War is one reason why Hamas is so unpopular, especially in Gaza.
Hamas started the conflict by kidnapping three Israeli teens. Now the war and other clashes with Israel, Egyptian and Israeli economic blockades, and overcrowding mean “Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020 if current economic trends persist,” according to a recent U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report.
Only 35 percent of the $3.5 billion promised for Gaza reconstruction by international donors has arrived, the World Bank reported recently. Israel is asserting that Hamas is “stealing” material for the construction of tunnels for black market commerce between Palestinians and Israelis.
Hamas leader Ahmad Youssef recently acknowledged the need for change.
“The Islamic movement in Palestine in particular needs to undertake intellectual and practical revisions regarding its role in the local and the international changes in the world,” he told Sama News, an independent news outlet in the Gaza Strip. “These Islamic movements have to make reforms.”
But the group isn’t turning away from violence.
Hamas is trying to recapture the nationalist enthusiasm of Palestinians by embracing the “Intifada of Knives” — the Palestinian uprising against Israel that has included numerous stabbings — celebrating teenage “martyrs” committing the stabbings and trumpeting the success of its tunnels from Gaza into Israel.
The Hamas-affiliated Al Aksa TV channel has even produced a music video urging attacks on Israel’s public transit. The television station’s studio was destroyed in the 2014 Gaza War, a conflict that resulted in more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths and the destruction of tens of thousands of homes and businesses.
“The intifada is not an intifada if the bus roof doesn’t fly off,” sang the Promise of Islamic Art, the Lebanese band commissioned by Al Aksa, whose studios have been rebuilt after their destruction in an Israeli airstrike during the 2014 conflict.
But AWRAD’s survey found that a majority of Palestinians disapprove of more violence. The perception that Israeli-Palestinian tensions are harming Palestinian livelihoods has further dented support for the intifada.
Even Hamas supporters are raising objections to their leaders’ rhetoric and strategy.
Saleh Elnueimi, a Hamas supporter and professor at Gaza’s Islamic University, raised eyebrows in Palestinian political circles in early February when he questioned the organization’s leadership on his Facebook page.
“The public statements of our leaders are detrimental to the Palestinian cause,” wrote Mr. Elnueimi. “While the Israeli Minister of War Ya’alon denies that the tunnels reach settlements near the border fence, our leaders jump and say that they do — don’t they understand that they invite public pressure on the Israeli government to launch a pre-emptive strike, which would likely lead to another war?”
The post received more than 800 likes and started a wide discussion among frustrated Palestinian academics.
Mr. Elnueimi and other Gaza Islamic University faculty took a 40 percent pay cut after the 2014 clashes. Lecturers said they have been going to the local food bank to feed their families.
Hamas’ Feb. 6 execution of Mahmud Eshtawi, commander of the Al-Zeytoun battalion of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — the Hamas fighting force — has caused an outcry among his large and established Gaza clansmen. His execution has fractured the ties between the group’s competing leadership factions, analysts said.
“By making public charges against Eshtawi — saying he was executed for moral faults and raising the specter that he may have had affairs with women — [Hamas leaders] not only insulted the honor of the family but indicated that somehow there is a power struggle going on behind the scenes in the Al-Qassam brigades,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
Hamas’ other public moves have also been confusing.
“We have been very uncertain of the direction Hamas wants to take,” said Mr. Abusada. “One week it looks like we are on the verge of another war with Israel, and the next the leaders speak of a new seaport that Turkey is going to build and Qatar is going to finance.”
It’s possible Hamas is in a struggle with itself — even as it faces the prospect of becoming increasingly irrelevant to younger Palestinians in particular, said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.
Palestinian politics has changed radically in the past two decades as the peace process fails to produce tangible gains. Neither Hamas nor Fatah offers much hope to their constituents today, he said.
“It’s clear to a growing number of Palestinians that neither of these actors have an endgame,” Mr. Elgindy said.
• Asma’ Jawabreh contributed to this report from Hebron in the West Bank.