A year ago Hamas was riding higher than it ever had. The militant Palestinian group had not only survived another round of fighting with Israel, it had renewed its credentials as a “resistance organization” in the process, firing as many missiles out of the Gaza Strip as the Israeli military fired in and hoisting rockets for the first time toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department and European Union, it had nonetheless hosted foreign emissaries — the prime minister of Egypt, the foreign minister of Turkey – during the height of the fighting, bolstering a claim on statesmanship first tasted with the celebrated visit of the emir of Qatar a month earlier.
The cease-fire ending last November’s hostilities was brokered by then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a fellow traveler in the Muslim Brotherhood flagship of political Islam that had also produced Hamas. And the terms of the document, calling for the two sides to “improve conditions for people in the Gaza Strip,” allowed Hamas to claim a victory, buttressed by a massive rally 16 days later. The headliner was Khaled Meshaal, the charismatic chairman of the Hamas movement whose star was rising so steadily in Palestinian politics that, in some West Bank circles, he was being mentioned as a likely successor to Mahmoud Abbas as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
(MORE: Iran’s Supreme Leader: Fanatic or “Genius”?)
Today, Hamas has none of those things, nor any apparent prospect of recovering them. Egypt’s Morsi is in custody, replaced by a military-backed government that casts Hamas as an enemy, and has sealed Gaza’s western border nearly as tight as Israel patrols the other three. “Worse than Mubarak,” says Fawzy Barhoom, spokesman for the Islamic Resistance Movement (the full name of Hamas), referring to the Egyptian autocrat who ruled until 2011 for three decades in strategic concert with Israel. Now, Qatar suddenly has other priorities and Iran no longer provides the perhaps $120 million a year it sent Hamas until the group’s political leadership left Damascus in solidarity with the Syrian population being mowed down by President Bashar Assad – Iran’s ally.
“It’s not frozen, but it’s still cold,” Barhoom tells TIME of the relationship with Tehran. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to continue cold forever.”
Nothing is forever, but time is not on Hamas’ side. The streets of Gaza are dark and awash in sewage, the Strip’s power grid strangled and pumping stations flooding as a consequences of Egypt shutting down hundreds of the smuggling tunnels that a senior Hamas official calls “the artery of survival.” Egypt’s action had the twin effect of severing the flow of cheap diesel and leaving Hamas cash poor from the loss of taxes it no longer collected on goods coming through tunnels.
(MORE: Hamas’s First Female Spokesperson: A Vehicle for Unintended Change)
“They are entitled to do this,” says tunnel worker Ahmed Salem, 25, referring to the Egyptians. “They are entitled to defend their country. Hamas is the one who is responsible for this.”
For what? “Weapons,” Salem says. ”And the people who go through the tunnels to Egypt and kill their soldiers. Yes, it happens.”
Hamas came to power in Gaza by winning 2006 legislative elections for the Strip and the West Bank, an outcome that surprised even its leaders. The secular Fateh party had been favored, but a potent backlash against its corruption and general ineffectiveness – Fateh split its own vote by running multiple candidates for the same slot – put Hamas in the role of governing. After months of maneuvering by both parties, Israel and Washington, the contest turned violent, as Hamas kicked Fateh out of Gaza. Palestinian politics has been divided by both ideology and geography: Fateh remains in control of the about 2.5 million Palestinians living on the West Bank. And in Gaza, Hamas struggles to reconcile its commitment to militancy – its onetime signature weapon, the suicide bombings, has been replaced by rockets fired randomly into Israeli population centers — with the practicalities of governance.
In the afterglow of last November’s fighting, the group briefly appeared to have found the formula. At the time, a poll by the well-regarded Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research based in Ramallah showed Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh would have beaten Fateh’s Mahmoud Abbas for president of the Palestinian Authority, the executive position Abbas won in 2006. But Hamas has faded in every poll since, and today stands as isolated as it has been in years.
“The current situation is intolerable,” says Rawan Atawna, 19, a teaching student at Al Azhar University in Gaza City, a campus with a reputation as a Fateh stronghold. “Hamas became a tyrant.”
Barhoom describes the situation as a familiar one. When Hamas found itself suddenly alone in power in 2007, he says, it had to scrape to pay salaries and govern by triage much as it does today. But many Gazans say they expect more from a party seven years in power. In its most recent survey, the Palestinian Center found only one in five had a positive view of life in Gaza, and Hamas was seen as nearly as corrupt as Fateh.
“Always, you hold responsible the one in power,” says Mohammed Allool, 31, a computer specialist in Gaza City.
“The problem is we tried both,” notes Ibstam Nhoor, 45, whose husband was killed in the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005. “’We tried Fatah. We tried Hamas. Neither brought us anything.”
Analysts say Hamas’ weakness makes it even less likely that the (repeatedly-announced) political reconciliation with Fateh will in fact go forward on a practical level in the visible future. Less clear is whether the many pressures on Hamas will make it more militant, or less. Under Meshaal, the group has steered a relatively moderate course in recent years, and with the ascent of the Brotherhood elsewhere in the region was poised to lay claim to the political mainstream. Now it’s keen to cozy back up to Iran, Barhoom acknowledges, a courtship he expects to bear fruit if only because in the Palestinian political equation, the alternative is a Fateh party committed to U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel that appear to be going nowhere.
“They cannot stop supporting the resistance,” Barhoom says of the Iranians. “What are they going to support? The negotiations?”
MORE: The Abdullah Azzam Brigades: Behind the Terrorist Group That Bombed Iran’s Beirut Embassy