"We are under occupation," said Abu Mohammed, a secular businessman with close family ties to the old Fatah security services. "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: If you're not in Hamas, you get nothing. If anyone does anything, they are arrested, tortured or killed. Just like with the Israelis. Except the Jews always give you a lawyer."
Anger with Hamas is not limited to secular supporters of the Fatah government in Ramallah. Militants devoted to violent resistance say they feel betrayed by what they call an epidemic of corruption - springing from Hamas's control of the illegal tunnel economy - and by Hamas's refusal to sanction military operations against Israel from Gaza.
Islamic Jihad, once the closest ally of the Hamas military wing, now refuses to call their former brothers-in-arms resistance fighters. According to Abu Musab, a top Islamic Jihad commander in the Rafah refugee camp, Hamas has failed at governance and resistance alike. "There's no government in Gaza," he said flatly. "We're under Israeli and Hamas occupation."
"They are as big harami as Dahlan," he said, using the Arabic slang for "thieves". "They used to be mujaheddin, but today they are fat millionaires with nice cars," he added, pointing to his flat stomach. "Look, you can either be a millionaire or you can lead a resistance. But you if you take the medical aid sent by Europe to help the poor people of Gaza and sell it in your own pharmacies to make money for yourself and the government, you can't have both."
At this point he pulled a packet of antibiotics from his pocket; it is stamped: "A gift of the people of Norway. Not for resale."
"I just bought this from a Hamas-run pharmacy here in Rafah for my son," he said. "I had to go to a Hamas pharmacy to make sure the pills weren't fake or made from poor materials in Egypt. If you want real medicine, you have to buy the aid Europe sends us."
Abu Saba, the Gazan political analyst, said that two major events had negatively reshaped public opinion of Hamas - and in both cases, he says, the damage to Hamas was self-inflicted.
"Things first started getting out of control in November, 2007 after Hamas took total control of Gaza earlier that summer," he said. "There was a legal rally by Fatah supporters on the anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death to honor their leader and to complain that Hamas was violating human rights promised under the constitution of the Palestinian people."
He pauses for a moment and looks around the café nervously before going on. "It was the biggest protest in the history of Gaza, bigger than the largest protests during the Intifada," he continues. "It got out of control when the Hamas police told everyone to go home."
This sparked a crackdown on political dissent throughout Palestine that continues to this day, with Hamas harassing and jailing Fatah supporters in Gaza and Fatah doing the same to Hamas supporters in the West Bank. The second major blow to Hamas's standing among Palestinians, according to Abu Saba, was the Israeli invasion of Gaza that began at the end of 2008: "When the war broke out people banded together to survive," he says, "but after the war most people thought Hamas had provoked it [with a resumption of rocket attacks] but they acted together to portray all of the population as victims of the invasion, which we were. But over the past 18 months, Hamas has fallen further and further in support."
According to one human rights activist, who asked not to be named for fear of being killed by one side or the other, the root of the problem is that both governments - Fatah and Hamas - were born of what he called "original sin".
"The Palestinian constitution protects the right of the people to peacefully assemble at anytime for political protest," he said. "It's a very progressive and wonderful law. But because Hamas can only control traffic and not how people meet privately, they decided to ban all public protests through decree of the police chief. And now they use the same tools that the Dahlan regime and the Israelis used to suppress the Intifada. Torture is a chronic problem here and on the West Bank, we have both sides using illegal and arbitrary detention and it's led to a systematic deterioration of human rights over the past four years."
"The original sin was the refusal of the international community to recognize the Hamas victory in 2006 and the power sharing arrangement with Fatah that Saudi Arabia brokered in early 2007," the activist said. "When Hamas saw that no one would recognize their legitimate victory - and it was a fair election victory then - they decided not to bother trying to be just rulers."
I ask him if that means the human rights situation was better under Israeli occupation that it is today for residents of both the West Bank and Gaza.
"Why do you think I ask you not use my name? Yes, 100 percent yes,"
he said. "At least the occupation had a positive effect of drawing the Palestinian people together instead of dividing them. I now fear that we're seeing a systematic effort by Hamas and its religious backers to enter every component of society."
Abu Saba described the Hamas response to the scorn of the international community as "furious". "They were offended because they'd been told to run in the elections, they ran in them and the elections were just ignored," he said. "Everything since that day has backfired on everyone. They squeeze Hamas and it gets stronger. And every time Ramallah arrests Hamas activists on the West Bank, it just becomes an excuse to crack down here. I think they'd still do it - Hamas has a black record on human rights - but the Israelis, Americans and Palestinian Authority never tire of giving them excuses."
To discover how Hamas and its legions of supporters see this situation, I paid a visit to two men I interviewed on previous trips to Gaza. Three years ago, they were high-level commanders in the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, but since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, both have become top police officials. I join them at a meeting honouring the Interior Ministry's police force in central Gaza City.
The event was led by Abu Obeida al Jarrah, once the overall commander of the Qassam Brigades and the military architect of the 2007 takeover that forced Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. A stocky, bald man with a short beard, Abu Obeida once lived in the shadows of the Gaza Strip, hunted by Israeli drones while he directed a campaign of rocket attacks, kidnappings and bombings, rarely sleeping in one place and never using a mobile phone.
When I interviewed him in the summer of 2007, he had never met a western journalist; he was, at that point, the most feared militant in Gaza. Today several bodyguards surrounded him as he inspected half a dozen Hamas members dressed like sailors from a 1940s musical, with ridiculous white bellbottom pants, green kerchiefs and white sailor caps. These men are in the navy, though it's not clear why Hamas even has such a force: the Israelis won't even let Gazan fishermen go more than a kilometre off the coast. But the kids have spit-shined shoes and ramrod straight backs as they proudly submit to their commander's inspection.
He shook my hand and I complimented him on the condition of his naval forces, to which he responded with a cold, but wry smirk. Militant commanders who crave public attention tend not to last very long in the Gaza Strip, and while it's unclear if he's still considered a legitimate military target, I could tell he would prefer to be out of sight rather than schmoozing with "The Support Women of the Hamas Interior Ministry Police Force" After a few minutes watching al Jarrah shake hands and pose for pictures - which he would never have allowed a few years ago - I was greeted by Moataz Deeb al Khalidi, whom I met back in his days as a Qassam commander, and he pulled me aside for a chat.
Khalidi, formerly a pharmacist by day and militant by night, is also an official member of the police force, in charge of community policing - which, considering the current vitriol directed at Hamas, hardly seems an easy job. As we sat in his office, he trid to explain how Hamas plans to deal with its sinking popularity.
"We are a government elected by the people, but we have to respect the people who elected us," he said, as he signed a large stack of paperwork brought to him by an aide. "We have got to solve the problems between these two parties and act if our soldiers or police mistreat the people they are sworn to protect."
When I asked about what many people see as an inherent conflict between the party's twin goals - setting an example of proper Islamist governance while simultaneously mounting a military challenge to Israel - he surprised me by quickly agreeing.
"You are right," he laughed, and slapped the table. "There are far too many responsibilities of a government to also combine these responsibilities with resistance. That is why I have been asked to focus on a new programme of community policing that will combine the two."
"When you can secure the population," Khalidi continued, "it gives a good picture of what the Resistance is. There's more than one kind of resistance, and just like a carpet needs strings of many colours in it, we need many types of colours to make a carpet out of Gaza." At this moment I realised that he was essentially describing a version of the American-style counter-insurgency theory, as deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan: secure the population to bolster their support for the central government, which will diminish their sense of being under occupation.
It's an answer that wouldn't be out of place coming from an American official in Afghanistan, and when I asked Khalidi about the complaints from Gazans who regard Hamas as an occupying force, he didn't disagree or take offence.
"We must have a lot of education within Hamas and the police on how to deal with people," he explained. "We had no experience in these areas before we came to power, so we are taking each step by step, but we are not at the top yet. The government has to respect everybody."
"This is why we're pursuing this 'under the table' ceasefire with Israel," he continues. "We don't have anti-aircraft missiles to fight this enemy that is so strong, we only have prayers to Allah. But we can also show people that there are rules and they should not be broken or it hurts all of us. The people of Gaza need a break from this tension and we need the time to show them what our government can be."
Later I described my conversation with Khalidi - and my quick chat with Abu Obeida - to Abu Nizar, a former Fatah security official. He laughed at the idea that these two famed Hamas fighters had turned their efforts to community policing: "Was Abu Obeida using community support when he was throwing Fatah officials off high-rise buildings in 2007? Are they working step by step to learn not to shoot people who disagree with them in the kneecaps? There's a video of Obeida himself executing five Fatah officials in the Jabaliya refugee camp after they surrendered - everyone in Gaza has seen it. So why should I ever think he's not going to one day come here and kill me?"
Fatah, according to Abu Nizar, no longer poses any threat to Hamas rule in Gaza: it would be insane, he says, for Ramallah to order its cadres to stir up trouble here, given the level of control Hamas currently exerts over the population.
"We'd be massacred in five minutes if we plotted against Hamas," he said. The real threat to Hamas, Abu Nizar continued, comes from its former militant allies. "The jihadis are much more powerful than they have ever been," he told me, echoing a warning that has been sounded by other experts on Gaza. "Salafists look at Hamas and think they aren't Islamic enough, because they ran in elections approved by Israel, they have failed to implement Sharia law, and they stop militants from attacking Israeli targets."
"They can't challenge Hamas yet. But you can't hold them off forever. The most religious members want Sharia law and an end to this under-the-table ceasefire. They will never accept Hamas rule, but Hamas tries to appease them by banning women from smoking shisha and other moral laws. But we know appeasing al Qa'eda types never works, they'll just ask for more and more until one day they have the support to throw Hamas out. Just like what happened to Fatah - but it will be even worse for all of us."
...Jaysh [al Islam] was at the forefront of the fighting here, and when I asked Jihad whether Hamas fighters had also participated, he scoffed. "When they saw 200 or so policemen were killed the first day in their bases, they all went to the tunnels," he explained. "Hamas knew Israel was coming to hurt them, so they sent all their men home or to safety. We had 18 martyrs in this neighborhood during the war and we're a small group. Qassam Brigades has more than 10,000 men all over Gaza, and they only had eight martyrs after the first day."
"They hid while we died for the glory of God," he added. "Who are the real Mujihadeen?"
One [member of Jaysh al Aslam] took me by the hand and led me quietly to the edge of the tree line. Not more than 100 metres away, Israeli bulldozers, guarded by massive Merkava tanks, were clearing brush from along the fence. I could see Israeli soldiers walking along, talking to each other, sharing cigarettes and guarding the area. "Past this tree and they'll see us and start shelling," my young masked guide explained, before returning me to Jihad and the rest of the men.
"Hamas is our enemy," Jihad said amid nods from his colleagues. "They have killed our brothers on behalf of the Israelis and they protect Israel from our guns." He points to one young man who is clutching an M-16 rifle. "This boy," Jihad says, "was arrested by Hamas for trying to attack Israelis outside of Rafah camp."
"They held me for 22 days," the boy says. "They beat me every day and when they released me, my father and I had to sign a paper that said if I attack Israel again, I will owe Hamas $22,000 or they will kill me."