The regional standing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist faction born in 1987 as a Muslim Brotherhood splinter group, has undoubtedly been buoyed by the meteoric rise of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
But a potentially bigger factor has been the precipitous decline of its rival, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority government, led by the secular Fatah faction.
A recent poll indicated that the PA's flat-lining support stems, in part, from the widespread perception (more than 70 percent of those polled) that the longtime leaders of the Palestinian movement have become irreparably corrupt. From allegations of squelching free speech to amassing great personal wealth, the PA has been on the ropes.
But a closer look reveals that – surprisingly – Hamas is not much better in the corruption department. The poll that slams the PA, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, also found that 57% of Palestinians believe there is widespread corruption in Gaza's institutions, too. Thus, despite the successful electoral campaign in 2006 that promised to clean up corruption, it appears that the Islamist faction that rules Gaza has succumbed to the temptation of financial vice.
As one Gaza businessman told The National, "After the takeover, people thought it might get better if the religious guys were in charge of the money, that security would improve and corruption would end. But they're just as corrupt."
Getting a handle on corruption in Hamas-controlled Gaza is not easy. The de facto government is stingy with its journalist permits. Moreover, there have been reports of journalist crackdowns and rough-ups when reporting casts the Gaza mini-state in a negative light.
Hamas has ruled the tiny territory with a heavy hand.
But in recent years, a clearer picture has started to emerge.
In July 2010, Fatah's Palestine Press reported that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was personally snapping up expensive real estate. The report further claimed that Hamas only sold government land to Hamas members, and that the de facto government simply took money from banks when it was cash strapped. In October 2011, The Guardian reported that Hamas members were acquiring large homes and fancy cars, while government officials continued to complain of Gaza's isolation. The dissonance was deafening.
But the problem went beyond Hamas leaders taking more than their fair share. Some were accused of outright theft. In March 2011, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that a senior Hamas official, Ayman Taha, "was suspended over allegations of corruption," which included stealing money from Hamas coffers and engaging in other illicit activities. The Israeli paper noted that it was "the first time in the history of the organization" that such disciplinary action had been taken.
By October 2011, the National reported that, "Gazans complain that family members and friends of Hamas leaders are given preferential treatment when it comes to fees and obtaining business licences." But, as the UAE newspaper reported, "public widespread frustration with alleged Hamas corruption is rarely heard. The group brutally silences such dissent."
Not everyone living in the Hamas enclave would be silenced, however. As one Gazan complained, "If you're not in Hamas, you get nothing. If anyone does anything, they are arrested, tortured or killed." And as another Gazan confided to the Guardian, "Hamas is a party that only benefits its own party, its own supporters. If you want a job, if you want to do business, you must be a supporter of Hamas."
In what appeared to be a response to these charges, Hamas reportedly embarked on a campaign to silence its critics in Gaza. Journalist Avi Issacharoff reported in Haaretz that "figures in Hamas – some of whom were suspected of corruption, and others of whom tried to report such affairs – have undergone peculiar accidents."
Issacharoff noted that while Hamas claimed Ahmed al-Mamluk was killed "while carrying out a jihad mission," his family claimed he was to meet with a senior Hamas official to discuss a number of corruption cases.
Others died of an "internal explosion," a road accident, electrocution, and drowning. The families contest the de facto government's accounts.
Not surprisingly, the PA has tried to exploit these and other reports. After all, smearing Hamas would theoretically help level the playing field in the ongoing political spat between Hamas and the PA. In March 2012, PA Minister for Religious Endowment Mahmoud Habbash appeared on television accusing Hamas of stealing "800 million dollars from the poor, through front companies for investments."
He further charged that in the midst of a fuel shortage, "Hamas hoards the fuel for its own vehicles, and for the convoys and modern cars driven by its so-called 'warriors' in plain view of the people."
By April 2012, the Western media could no longer ignore the "griping about Hamas corruption and patronage." The Washington Post reported, "Hamas has hired more than 40,000 civil servants, and analysts say the top tiers are filled by loyalists. Members of the Hamas elite are widely thought to have enriched themselves through investment in the dusty labyrinth of smuggling tunnels beneath the border with Egypt and taxes on the imported goods. That money has been channeled into flashy cars and Hamas-owned businesses that only stalwarts get a stake in." The report also noted that the Hamas brand of "authoritarianism," including "arrests of perceived political opponents" have come to "cost the group support."
The Associated Press piled on, noting that, "Audis, Porsches and Hummers are driven around potholed streets by a newly wealthy class of black market traders who benefit from the [Hamas] regime." This report echoed a well-viewed YouTube video (23,000 hits) that circulated in December 2011, which offered up a rather lengthy account of the expensive cars and homes belonging to Haniyeh's family in Gaza. The long list of assets, juxtaposed with images depicting poverty in Gaza, presumably prompted a modicum of outrage.
The charges against Hamas continue to accrue. Professor Nathan Brown, a long-time observer of Hamas, observes there are widespread rumors of "graft and venal corruption," not to mention whispers of "kickbacks and involvement in illegal drugs on the part of government officials."
And the charges come from unlikely places. Even Islamists like Sheikh Nabil Naim, a leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, has chimed in: "Hamas is only interested in smuggling, trading, collecting money, and liquidating Fatah [the primary political faction in the PA]."
Thus, despite its promises to offer a refreshingly honest style of governance, Hamas has fallen far short of its expectations. If Hamas and the PA were to somehow come to terms and elections were held tomorrow, it is very likely that Hamas would take a hard fall from the comfortable margin of victory it enjoyed in 2006.
Chalk it up again to corruption, the virus that continues to infect governments across the Middle East.
Even the ones that campaign on counter-corruption.
The writer, a former terrorism intelligence analyst at the US Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.