Israel may wish that Gaza’s dire situation would push residents of the Strip to rise up against their Hamas rulers, but more than a month into Operation Protective Edge, there are very few indications of that happening.
There have been sporadic reports of civil unrest directed at Hamas over the past week: the physical assault of Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri outside Shifa hospital; a small demonstration crushed by the Islamic movement, some members summarily executed. But even these relatively minor incidents could not be confirmed by independent sources.
Bassem Eid, a veteran Jerusalem-based human rights activist and political analyst, said that Gazans are reluctant to demonstrate for fear of Hamas.
“There is no doubt there’s an atmosphere of fear and terror in Gaza,” Eid told The Times of Israel, citing the killing of Hamas official Ayman Taha in Gaza last week over suspicions of corruption and collaboration with Arab intelligence agencies. “Others were executed in various gatherings under the pretext of their being collaborators with Israel.”
Eid said he is trying to investigate reports of political repression in Gaza, and estimated that the number of dissidents killed by Hamas over the course of Operation Protective Edge ranged from 10 to 35.
“Hamas has a physical presence in almost every house in Gaza and can listen to what’s being said. It’s a Stasi regime par excellence,” he continued, referring to the East German secret police notorious for its eavesdropping capabilities.
“The population is much more scared of Hamas than it is of the Israeli soldiers,” Eid said. Hamas, for its part, is more worried about the possible return of control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority than it is of an Israeli military incursion.
“In my opinion, Hamas is willing to pay its last drop of blood to prevent Abbas and his PA from setting foot in Gaza. These people (Hamas) are fighting for their existence.”
Palestinian Authority media repeatedly gives credence to Eid’s reports of an atmosphere of terror in Gaza. Official Palestinian news agency WAFA has told of Fatah activists being placed under house arrest by Hamas from the early days of the Israeli operation. Fatah’s official Facebook page reported shots being fired at the legs of Fatah members, including the bodyguards of Fatah official Abdullah Ifranji. When PA Health Minister Jawad Awwad visited Gaza one week into the operation to survey the city’s hospitals, his vehicle was pelted with stones; Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk condemned the attack as “inappropriate.”
But Mkheimer Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said that anti-Hamas demonstrations were unlikely to emerge in a society which largely regards Israel as the main cause of its suffering.
“Even if there’s anger at Hamas, people are mostly angry at Israel,” Abusada told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation from Gaza. “Hamas may bear responsibility for the war, but it’s Israel which is destroying homes and killing civilians.” (Of almost 2,000 deaths reported by health officials in the Hamas-run Strip, Israel says 750-1,000 are Hamas and other gunmen.)
The IDF has closely followed indications on Gaza’s streets of civil unrest, with some military observers speaking of preliminary signs of mounting popular criticism of the Islamist government as residents return to their destroyed homes. But when, last Friday, one large demonstration did take place in Gaza, it was organized by Hamas.
Hamas and other armed factions in Gaza have launched over 3,000 rockets and mortar shells into Israel during Operation Protective Edge, many of them from densely populated areas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has charged Hamas with using the civilian population in Gaza as “human shields” — firing rockets and building tunnels from residential areas, providing Gazans with no protection, and sometimes even urging civilians to remain in fighting zones despite IDF warnings — while Hamas’s leadership has taken to hiding in underground tunnels. But Abusada indicated that Gazans viewed themselves as victims of Israel, not Hamas.
“I’m surprised at the Israeli hypothesis that people would demonstrate against Hamas,” Abusada said, adding that he was unaware of Hamas intimidating civilians against demonstrating.
The Fatah-Hamas unity government created in early June, as well as the cross-faction Palestinian delegation sent to Cairo to negotiate the ceasefire, gave Palestinians in Gaza the sense that true reconciliation is underway, he said.
“There have been recent attempts to solve the dispute between Fatah and Hamas,” Abusada said. “But let’s be realistic. Even granted that Palestinian politicians have no answer for the problems facing Palestinians, who [else] are the people of Gaza meant to trust? The Arab governments which have forsaken them? Israel, which kills their children and destroys their homes? Ultimately, they have no choice but to place their trust with the political leadership.”