“Whispering in Gaza”: second part of the series that shows the life of Palestinians under the threat of Hamas

(Screenshot/courtesy CPC)

This article, the second in a series of three, features nine short and lively interviews with residents of the Gaza Strip.

Produced under the series title Whispering in Gaza by the Center for Peace Communications, a New York non-profit organization, are published in Spanish exclusively by infobaeas well as in Arabic by Alarabiya, in Persian by kayhan londonin English and French by Times of Israeland in Portuguese by RecordTV.

For security reasons, the announcers communicate using communication technology. voice disturbance and appear in video animation instead of their real faces.

Last week, in the first installment, Gazan men and women described their disenfranchisement by Hamas and the repression of their personal freedoms. They spoke of arbitrary arrests, Hamas blackmailing small businessmen and the silencing of journalists. They expressed their unconditional support for Palestinian self-determination, but also denounced that Hamas harms that cause by starting wars with Israel that it cannot win, hiding in bunkers and letting civilians suffer casualties. In addition, they understood the Hamas war as a game to obtain aid money that the movement is dedicated to looting.

In this installment, we learn more about local grievances, as well as an internal attempt to do something about it: the effort carried out by approximately 1,000 Gazans in 2019 to challenge the authority of Hamas through street demonstrations. Four veterans of that protest movement recount their experience, explaining how it reshaped their lives and perspective.

Nepotism is everywhere

“Here there is nepotism in everything”, according to “Ashraf”. On the one hand, for example, you need friends at the Hamas-run electric company to lower your bill. Others will charge you exorbitant taxes, especially if you are among the 17,000 Gazans with permission to work in Israel. On the other hand, notes Ashraf, a young relative of Yahya Musa, a Hamas official who mocked Hamas and cursed Islam, was free just two days later – for a crime that would see an ordinary Gazan “in jail until the present day”.

The belief that Hamas institutions are corrupt, shared by 73% of Gazans according to a September 2022 survey, stems from a number of overt signs, of which nepotism, according to a 2022 study by Aman Transparency Palestine is the most common. Last summer, Gaza’s social networks were the scene of an outburst of criticism of the leaders “who can live in Gaza at the height of luxury and yet decide to abandon it for the hotels and villas of Doha and Istanbul.” During the attempted revival last summer of the “We want to live” protest movement as a campaign on Gazan social media, one woman observed: “Everyone in Gaza is suffering from the situation. The only ones who enjoy their lives are the officials and their children.”

What I want for my children

Another source of anguish is shared by parents like “Amna”, who want their children to have a decent education, “to think rationally… and live a modern life”. She fears sending them to Hamas-run schools for this reason: “because that’s where they indoctrinate people,” instructing children “on how they can go to heaven” through martyrdom, “and I don’t want my children to be exposed to that indoctrination”.

By way of context, in the years before Hamas took power in 2007, a new debate was spreading in the region about the need to reform Arab education. As the UN’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report put it, “Today’s global information market requires a different kind of education, one that imparts the skills, attitudes and intellectual agility conducive to critical and systemic thinking within a knowledge-driven economy. knowledge”. While some Arab countries have taken steps in this direction, Hamas has transformed Gazan education into a system of ideological indoctrination and military recruitment. Segregation by sex is imposed not only on students, but also on teachers. “They control us when we talk to our male colleagues and humiliate us if we don’t dress as they want,” a Gaza teacher told the Atlantic. The rules are enforced by the “modesty police”, known for mistreating those in their custody.

Widespread anti-Semitic indoctrination and Holocaust denial is combined, from an early age, with gun instruction and incitement to wage “jihad” after graduation.

As Amna makes clear, she wants a different future for her children.

Forbidden to say that we do not want war

The suffering of Gazans under Hamas is compounded, says “Yasmin”, by the feeling that Arabs throughout the region do not understand what life is really like under Hamas rule. “Many media [árabes] They work for Hamas,” he explains. “They present Hamas as heroes.” Meanwhile, “if you are a Gaza citizen who says, ‘I don’t want war,’ you are branded a traitor.”

Pro-Hamas narratives have long enjoyed a dominant position in the Arab media. A quantitative analysis of Al Jazeera’s reporting concluded that it “has significantly elevated and prioritized” Hamas “and the resistance narrative in its coverage.” Al Jazeera even received an award from Hamas itself for its “professionalism” in covering Hamas. Meanwhile, the movement also has the unwavering support of all Iranian government-owned media outlets, with more than 210 outlets in 35 countries, as well as state-backed Russian media outlets, which are among the most influential in the Arab media today.

A crucial component of Hamas’s narrative dominance is its control of the media and information within the coastal strip. Some outlets run them directly, such as the Shehab News Agency and Al-Aqsa Radio. Ibrahim Daher, director of the official Al-Aqsa Radio station, told the Washington Post: “We are the main reason for the popularity of Hamas… In any action by Hamas, we spread it and we stop any rumors about the party.” When news unfavorable to Hamas emerges, he explained, “our policy has always been to remain silent.” Asked about the cost of Hamas’s policies in Gaza, Daher said: “We are not interested in showing other things, like some successes for the Israelis or how companies have been hurt by the war.” Non-governmental journalists are restrained by other means, including arrest, interrogation and physical abuse. In 2019, after reporting on a corruption scandal involving Hamas, independent journalist Hajar Harb was detained, “threatened with physical harm and even accused of being an Israel collaborator.” “I am paying the price of doing an investigative article on corruption in Gaza,” he said. “How can this be fair?”

The crime of counseling

Amid the pressures of life in Gaza, many yearn for an outlet to air and manage their feelings. So “Layla” opened a counseling center in her home, serving the emotional needs of women and children. “Solving her problems made me happy,” she says. However, the Hamas authorities demanded that she close the center or that she work under her supervision, “so that the problems would be contained… [no fuera que] people came out to protest what the authorities were doing.” One day the police came and surrounded his house on all sides.

Fifteen years of Hamas rule have left Gazans few opportunities to voice unsanctioned grievances. A Human Rights Watch report notes that “Hamas authorities detain and torture peaceful opponents and critics with impunity.” Another concluded that these continued abuses may constitute “crimes against humanity, given their systematic nature over many years.” In the same period, abuse and harassment of women have skyrocketed. According to Freedom House, Hamas is “reluctant to prosecute these cases,” so “rape and domestic violence remain unreported and often go unpunished.” Even so, a recent survey revealed that 37.5% of Gazan women had experienced violence in the past year.

If Gaza’s women were free to voice their grievances in forums like Layla’s, the true scale of the problem – and the authorities’ disinterest in addressing it – could pose a challenge to the strip’s rulers. As Hamas discovered in 2019, there are many brave young people in the area who want change and have the courage to demand it.

The crime of wanting to live

In 2019, approximately 1,000 Gazans staged street demonstrations under the slogan “We want to live.” “Frog” was one of them. “The people wanted their voice to be heard by the government,” she explains. “But as you surely saw, Hamas responded with the opposite of what we expected… with all kinds of brutality.”

In fact, it was reported at the time that the police fired on protesters, raided houses throughout the strip and detained anyone suspected of involvement. An Amnesty International official observed: “The crackdown on free expression and the use of torture in Gaza have reached new alarming levels…we have witnessed appalling human rights violations carried out by Hamas security forces. against peaceful protesters, journalists and human rights workers.”

Among the victims was Momen al Natour, a protest organizer. Hamas stormed his home and threatened his parents, demanding his whereabouts. He and other detainees were “tortured, humiliated and accused of collaborating with Israel and the PA,” al-Natour said. The violence, he added, shows that “this is a partisan police fight to protect Hamas, not the people.” Another protest leader whose family suffered similar mistreatment told the AP: “Hamas doesn’t want us to yell. He wants us to die in silence.”

i was a dreamer

Another protester, “Walid”, describes having been imprisoned by Hamas seven times. Before the protests, “I was a young dreamer, dreaming of change,” he recalls. “I did not imagine that they would brand us as traitors… after all, we did not want to harm anyone.” What changed his life, he says, was the experience of looking his torturers in the eye.

Although Hamas claims to respect the Palestinian right to freedom of expression, its behavior shows otherwise. In addition to firing into crowds, storming homes, and detaining more than 1,000 protesters, Hamas mistreated untold numbers of detainees. Amir Abu Oun, 19, for example, “was arrested and held for five days, during which, according to what he said, he was slapped, beaten and deprived of food.”

Part of Hamas’s response to the 2019 demonstrations was to work systematically to brand the protesters as traitors. In 2019, pro-Hamas media outlets, both within the strip and in other Arab countries, rallied to brand Gazan protesters as “collaborators” with Israeli security forces. A Hamas security official claimed that “these protests are driven by foreign parties and these parties seek to destabilize the Gaza Strip.”

When echoed by pro-Hamas media in various Arab countries, these arguments reinforce the feeling within Gaza that many in the region confuse support for Hamas with support for Palestinians living under Hamas control.

Change comes from the people

“Safa”, a Gazan photojournalist, tried to support the 2019 demonstrations by covering the international media. Police broke her camera and hand, imprisoned and tortured her relatives, and even threatened her relatives abroad that if they posted information about the protests on social media, they would punish her loved ones in his country. Unyielding, she Safa believes that “in the end, something will happen that will bring them back to the streets.”

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 42 Gazan journalists were “targeted” during the 2019 protests, facing “physical assaults, summonses, threats, house arrests and seizure of equipment.” Freedom House, which gives Gaza a score of 0/4 on press freedom, reports: “Gazan journalists and bloggers continue to face repression, often at the hands of the Hamas government’s internal security apparatus.” The Foreign Press Association noted that the 2019 crackdown on the “We Want to Live” movement was only “the latest in a series of chilling attacks on journalists in Gaza.”

Hamas’s tactic of attacking the families of critics is a common thread in these episodes. In October 2022, a Gazan media activist posted a video of a Hamas enforcer threatening his parents in an attempt to silence him. When Osama al-Kahlout, a freelance journalist, published a photo of a protester holding a sign reading “I want to live with dignity”, Hamas stormed into his family’s home, smashed his furniture and beat him on the way to the police station. There they “advised” him not to report on more protests. However, as he later said: “I am a journalist. I don’t regret covering it.”

Although more than three years have passed since the protests were put down, Gazan political scientist Mikhaimar Abusada seems to agree with Safa that Hamas has not heard the last of the “We want to live” movement. That they don’t protest, he observes, “does not mean that the Palestinians in Gaza are happy with Hamas.”

Their leaders are rich

Part of what fuels the bitterness of Gazans, according to “Hisham”, is the ostentatious behavior of the Hamas leadership. “Today, it is not an occupier who is killing me,” he says, but Hamas, which imposes crushing taxes, leaving Gazans in utter poverty, while its leaders have “land, businesses and huge sums of money”. .

Hamas imposes a heavy tax burden, collecting some $30 million a month from already beleaguered Gazans. These taxes finance a largely opaque budget, the purpose of which is even secret. However, Hamas “offers few services in return, and most aid and relief projects are funded by the international community,” the AP reports. Mohammed Agha, a struggling gas station owner, laments: “Before Hamas, 1,000 shekels (about $320) a month was enough for a family to get by. Now, 5,000 is not enough because they collect taxes from the citizens”.

Meanwhile, despite externally projecting an air of austerity, Hamas officials and their families live in relative luxury. In 2009, the chairman of the Hamas political bureau, Isma’il Haniyeh, declared: “Our hands are clean. We don’t steal funds, we don’t own real estate or build villas.” However, in recent years, Haniyeh’s son has become well known in Gaza as “Abu al-Aqarat [Padre de las propiedades]” for his extensive real estate holdings, made possible through his father’s influence. Earlier this month, Palestinian journalist Lara Ahmed reported that Haniyeh has laundered several million dollars among her extended family. Palestinian journalist Akram Atallah observed that “Hamas as an authority has been exposed.” “People have discovered that their leaders live much better than they do.”

Gazan youth sometimes respond to such information with black humour. Last year, local activists launched a social media campaign to draw attention to Hamas’s financial improprieties, titled “Our hands are clean.” A recent poll by The Washington Institute revealed not only that a large majority of Gazans “are frustrated with the Hamas government,” but also that 84% of Gazans prioritize “domestic political and economic reform over foreign policy issues.” .

A life that gives us meaning

For most Gazans who do not openly censor Hamas, there is no guarantee that Hamas will not censor them. In a certain cafeteria in Gaza, “Lubna” and her boyfriend used to hold hands, until the Hamas police noticed her behavior, reported it and closed the cafeteria. Today Lubna is married, and at every family gathering, relatives ask them when they will have children. “It would be a mistake to bring a child to the conditions we endure,” she explains. “A girl is innocent. She does not deserve to be forced to go to public schools that teach useless and misleading lessons.” The young couple hopes to carve out a future elsewhere.

Hamas’s efforts to impose conservative social mores intensified after the group seized power. They include enforcing gender segregation in schools, banning books, banning women from riding bicycles, and encouraging polygamy. Hamas officials say these measures reflect the innate conservative sensibilities of Gazans, but local human rights activists take the opposite view. Zeinab al-Ghoneimi, a Gaza-based women’s rights advocate, challenged the group to be more direct: “Instead of hiding behind traditions, why don’t you say clearly that you are Islamist and that you want to Islamize the community ?”.

“Lubna’s” fears about raising children are well-founded. Hamas-run summer schools and camps steer children toward a life of conflict. Its curricula deny basic critical thinking skills while instilling anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Boys are trained in the use of firearms and urged to pursue “jihad” after graduation. Samir Zakout, a Gazan human rights activist, believes that Hamas’ educational methods are aimed at “building a military culture, familiarizing children with the resistance and creating the next generation of militants.” Mkhaimar Abusada, an assistant professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, decries the group’s efforts: “They may call it summer camps, but really this is just part of Islamic socialization… They are recruiting these children to join the al-Qassam Brigades. Every time there is a fight with Israel or a new round of violence with Israel, most of the boys will be recruited to fight as suicide bombers or at least to join the Palestinian resistance.”