Hamas halts rockets, turns focus to PR

Its new fight is for world opinion

The New York TimesJuly 24, 2009 

— Seven months after Israel launched a fierce three-week military campaign here to stop rockets from being fired on its southern communities, Hamas has suspended its use of rockets and shifted focus to winning support at home and abroad through cultural initiatives and public relations.

The aim is to build what leaders in Gaza call a "culture of resistance," the topic of a recent two-day conference. In recent days, a play has been staged, a movie premiered, an art exhibit mounted, a book of poems published and a television series begun, most of it state-sponsored and all focused on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. There are plans for a documentary competition.

"Armed resistance is still important and legitimate, but we have a new emphasis on cultural resistance," said Ayman Taha, a Hamas leader and former fighter. "The current situation required a stoppage of rockets. After the war, the fighters needed a break, and the people needed a break."

Taha and others say that the military has replaced field commanders and restructured itself as it learns lessons from the war. The decision to suspend the use of the short-range Qassam rockets that for years have flown into Israel, often dozens a day, has been partly the result of popular pressure.

"What did the rockets do for us? Nothing," said Mona Abdelaziz, a 36-year-old lawyer, in a street interview.

How long Hamas will hold its fire and whether it will obtain longer-range missiles -- which it says it is seeking -- remains unclear. But the shift in policy is evident. In June, a total of two rockets were fired from Gaza, according to the Israeli military, one of the lowest monthly tallies since the firing began in 2002.

In that tactical sense, the war was a victory for Israel and a loss for Hamas. But on the field of public opinion, Hamas took the upper hand. Its leaders have noted the international condemnation of Israel over allegations of disproportionate force, a perception they hope to continue to use to their advantage. Suspending the rocket fire could also serve that goal.

"We are not terrorists but resistance fighters, and we want to explain our reality to the outside world," Culture Minister Osama Alisawi said during a break from the two-day conference. "We want the writers and intellectuals of the world to come and see how people are suffering on a daily basis."

That suffering is quite real. An Israeli-led boycott limits economic activity here to farming and basic commerce, although Israel does allow about 100 trucks of food and medicine in each day, and more and more goods are coming in through desert smuggler tunnels from Egypt. Israel is experimenting with minor adjustments, allowing some equipment and glass in last week for the first time in a long time.

Since Israeli officials also believe they must improve public relations and message management, the new focus on culture here sets up an intriguing battle for world opinion. Both sides argue that journalists show too much sympathy for the other.

But it may also bring unforeseen risks to the Islamist leaders of Hamas. The play currently seen nightly at Gaza City's Shawa cultural center offers an example of how.

Called "The Women of Gaza and the Patience of Job," it consists of a series of contemporary and historical scenes about suffering. And while it might be helping to create a sense of solidarity among the people of Gaza, it pushes some local limits.

In one satirical scene, for example, a Hamas fighter is standing over his rocket launcher about to fire at Israel when a woman asks about her brother, a fellow fighter.

Oh yes, he replies excitedly, her brother is a hero. He made the Israelis quake in their boots. "He hit Tel Aviv!"

From the audience emerges a dismissive laugh, for it knows how meaningless such boasting proved over the years.

After the show one recent evening, its writer, director and star, Said al-Bettar, said he wrote the scene that way to make the point that, "We were the victims of a big lie." He added, "The people paid a heavy price and society is looking for someone to express its views clearly."

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