ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 231

  • Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
    Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
  • Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
    Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
  • Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
    Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
  • Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
    Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
  • Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
    Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
  • Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
    Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
  • Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
    Image from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
WHISPERED IN GAZA, PART 3PRESENTED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE TIMES OF ISRAEL

Darkest tragedy, unrealized dreams: ‘Whispered in Gaza,’ the final interviews

The last installment of an extraordinary series of animated video interviews — already viewed millions of times worldwide — in which ordinary Gazans tell their harrowing stories

Images from the Center for Peace Communications' 'Whispered in Gaza' series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)

This article, the last in a series of three, presents eight short, animated interviews with residents of the Gaza Strip.

Produced by the Center for Peace Communications, a New York nonprofit, they are being published by The Times of Israel because they represent a rare opportunity for ordinary, courageous Gazans to tell the world what life is like under the rule of Hamas.

Since the series’ debut, the videos have accrued two million views via CPC’s platforms, and approximately one million more through a combination of partnering outlets with separate platforms, reposts on social media, and WhatsApp and Telegram transmissions. According to analytics, the largest audience resides in the Arab world, followed by English-speaking countries.

There have been several hacking attempts, presumably by Hamas in a failed attempt to block distribution of the material. The unsuccessful hacks included bot assaults on CPC’s distribution mechanism. CPC had previously disclosed one of those attempts. We have also been made aware that Hamas produced counterfeit clips with voiceovers to twist the Gazan testimonies evidently in order to sabotage the reach and audience of “Whispered in Gaza”.

All interviews were conducted over the course of 2022. The speakers all currently reside in Gaza.

Over the first and second installments, Gazan men and women shared their experience of Hamas repression, corruption, brutality, brainwashing, and warmongering. Several also described their participation in a homegrown attempt to confront Hamas rule through street demonstrations in 2019, which Hamas quashed with an iron fist.

The first of this installment’s eight clips narrates the darkest individual tragedy in the entire “Whispered in Gaza” series. Two others relay seldom-heard Gazan perspectives on Israeli citizens and a clash with the IDF

This final installment, released amid a new wave of Hamas terror in Israel and Israeli military responses in Gaza, aims to enhance the new discussion of Gaza’s future which this series has now sparked. As CPC president Joseph Braude writes in an accompanying opinion piece, the first 17 clips have already been viewed several million times. Among their audience in the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas, some in the Arab world who had long perceived Hamas as a legitimate “resistance” movement are reacting with dismay at the group’s actual behavior, while some Western policymakers have called for creative thinking about a new approach to the coastal Strip.

The first of this installment’s eight clips narrates the darkest individual tragedy in the entire “Whispered in Gaza” series. Two others relay seldom-heard Gazan perspectives on Israeli citizens and a clash with the IDF. As to the remaining five, they platform Gazans wishing to address an international audience directly. The interviewees respond to questions about their hopes and dreams for Gaza’s future, as well as potential roles for outside powers in supporting their goals.

The Times of Israel’s French site is carrying a French edition of the clips. An Arabic-language edition is being presented on alarabiya.net, a Persian edition via the newspaper Kayhan, a Spanish edition on Infobae, and a Portuguese edition on RecordTV.

Related: Introducing ‘Whispered in Gaza’ — 25 short, animated interviews on life under Hamas

Related: ‘Whispered in Gaza’ – Part 1. What’s life like under Hamas? Unique, courageous testimony

Related: ‘Whispered in Gaza, Part 2’: When residents of the Strip tried to challenge Hamas

All names have been changed, and CPC employed animation and voice-altering technology to conceal speakers’ identity.

The Times of Israel viewed the original footage as used in the animated clips, confirming the speakers’ identity and that their testimony has been accurately translated.

The participants consented to be interviewed for the sake of relaying their ideas and experiences to an international audience, noted Braude, adding, “They want these stories to be heard.”

Watch the clips one by one below, alongside context and sources about the widespread phenomena they portray. (You can also watch the entire playlist, now totaling 25 videos, here.)

“They Call Themselves Muslims”

“Samir’s” late brother, who served in the PA security forces in Gaza, was among the critically wounded in the Hamas coup of 2007. His friends rushed him to the emergency room. Before he could be treated, Hamas militants shut off the power and made it impossible for doctors to save his life. Years of Hamas persecution of his family followed. “These people profess Islam and claim to be religious,” Samir says, “but they slaughtered people.”

Since Hamas consolidated its rule over Gaza, it has waged a campaign of violence and harassment against Palestinians supporting other parties, as well as their families. During the initial putsch in 2007, Hamas killed dozens of noncombatants associated with Fatah. Some, like Muhammad Swairki, a cook employed by Fatah, were bound hand and foot and thrown off a 15-story building in Gaza City. As one Hamas commander put it in 2014, “The Resistance will show no mercy to anyone who informs on the Resistance and its men to the enemy. They will be dealt with through field executions.”

Image from the Center for Peace Communications’ ‘Whispered in Gaza’ series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)

Hamas authorities liberally accuse their critics of collaboration with Israel. As several human rights groups have noted, however, evidence in these cases is murky at best, and due process does not exist. A 2014 report by Amnesty International found that on numerous occasions, the only evidence of the supposed offense was a confession extracted under torture, used in a “grossly unfair” trial. That year alone, Hamas executed at least 23 people on charges of “collaboration.” In periods of heightened tension with Israel, as Amnesty International’s Philip Luther noted, “Hamas forces took the opportunity to ruthlessly settle scores, carrying out a series of unlawful killings and other grave abuses… [actions] designed to exact revenge and spread fear across the Gaza Strip.”

“Not Much Different Than an Occupation”

“Majed” recalls how the Gaza border protests of 2018-2019 began. “It started with peaceful protest camps,” he says, “but Hamas decided to exploit them.” Gazans were told that they would “break the blockade” if they marched on the border, he remembers, “but the people were broken instead.”

Though the March of Return protests were initiated at first by grassroots activists, Hamas was quick to direct them to its own ends. As Gazan political analyst Reham Owda told CNN, “Nothing happens here without Hamas’s approval and it approves of the demonstrations.” In an interview, Hamas politburo member Salah al-Bardawil boasted that at least 50 of those killed during the protests were Hamas members. Another Hamas stalwart, Khalil Al-Haya, later claimed that Hamas was “at the heart” of the protests.

Image from the Center for Peace Communications’ ‘Whispered in Gaza’ series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)

In co-opting the March of Return, Hamas sought to refashion it as a platform for violent cross-border attacks. Hamas’s takeover of the march troubled its organizer, Gazan activist Ahmed Abu Artema, who told the Financial Times, “The idea was ours, but the real situation is another story.” Hamas, rather than ordinary Gazans, was the biggest beneficiary of the protests. As Al-Azhar University professor Mkhaimar Abusada put it, “They are the number one winners of this march — they didn’t have to come up with the idea, but they were immediately able to appropriate it.” This left regular Gazans to suffer the consequences. As Majed observes, “four hundred people were martyred, and nobody knows for what.”

“All of Us Are Patriots”

“Bassam” would like the world to know that in the 2019 street demonstrations, he and his fellow protesters wanted nothing more than “a government that knows how to run the country.” As proud Palestinian nationalists, they did not expect that Hamas would tar them all as “traitors” and “Zionist collaborators.” Though they took a truly independent stand for positive change, moreover, they were disappointed to have “found no international support.” If a new movement for change is ever to be revived, he says, it must have “coordination” with the international community.

The “We Want to Live” Movement first emerged in 2019 in protest against Hamas’s tax increases, corruption, and economic mismanagement. As one activist told BBC, “Hamas has billions of dollars in investments in many countries, while people [in Gaza] starve to death and migrate in search of work.” The thousand-odd Gazans who took to the streets made non-ideological demands, such as improving living conditions and ending corruption and nepotism. As the movement grew, Hamas cracked down violently, beating demonstrators, raiding homes, and arresting more than a thousand people.

Image from the Center for Peace Communications’ ‘Whispered in Gaza’ series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)

Even without the international support Bassam calls for, some Gazans have continued to speak out, attempting to revive the movement online or in exile. Frustrations remain high: one recent poll found that only seven percent of Gazans would positively evaluate their conditions, while demand for elections stood at 78 percent. As one organizer put it in 2021, “It is the right time to demand our right to live, just like any other people around the world.” Amal al-Shamaly, another protest veteran, stressed that she would refuse to give up: “To reject this bitter reality … I will keep writing against corruption and illegal governmental decisions imposed on us.” While little has changed for Gazans, as another organizer told the NYT, “The demonstrations broke the state of silence and inertia among Gazans and showed the reality of Hamas.”

Bassam’s call for international support for a Gazan movement for change reflects a larger trend among Arab reformists under extremist domination. While outsiders who sympathize with them eschew assistance for fear of tainting them with the so-called “kiss of death,” reformists, facing bogus accusations of “collaboration” and treason anyway, would rather not be left alone to suffer the stigma without the benefit of actual international support.

“We Used to Celebrate Together”

“Khalil’s” grandparents raised him on stories of a better time. In their generation, “we used to attend [Israelis’] celebrations, and they would come to ours.” Palestinians were free to travel from Gaza to Jaffa or Jerusalem, and work alongside Israelis. ”When you work with Israelis, and they trust you,” his grandparents told him, “you can live the life you’ve always wished for.”

Image from the Center for Peace Communications’ ‘Whispered in Gaza’ series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)

Without idealizing the largely forgotten period between 1967 and 1987 in Gaza, it is worth recalling the context of the memories Khalil’s grandparents shared. Those two decades saw rapid material improvement in living conditions in the Gaza Strip. Relations between Gaza and Israel led to a steady increase in Gazan workers traveling to the Jewish state, reportedly peaking in 1987 at nearly 40 percent of the workforce. These guest workers enjoyed a daily wage premium roughly 20–40 percent higher than those employed in Gaza itself, and accounted for an enormous share of Palestinian GDP.

Gazans also enjoyed far greater freedom of movement. According to B’Tselem, from 1967 until 1991, “Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip could travel almost entirely freely… Gaza and Israel maintained family ties; students from Gaza studied in West Bank universities; and extensive trade took place among Palestinians, no matter where they lived.” As Nahed al-Ghool, a water delivery man in Gaza, told Al-Jazeera, “The best period of our lives was when we used to work in Israel, 25 or 30 years ago. We were happy, we used to go to Israel or Jordan or Egypt – the roads were open. We lived well, there was money. Today, there’s no money.”

“My Struggle is Through Communication”

“Zainab” would like the world to know that “there’s a false stereotype that Palestinians in Gaza love rockets and wars.” While pro-Hamas media works to “instill a thirst for blood” in the youth, her struggle is to tell Israelis and Palestinians alike “that I’m a human being here in Gaza — not a beast, a terrorist, or a lover of weapons — because in the end, weapons won’t get us anywhere.”

Hamas rhetoric calls for Gazans to serve as cannon fodder. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar memorably told Palestinians, “Everybody who has a gun should take it, and those who don’t have a gun should take a butcher’s knife, axe or any knife they can get… from satellites, the entire region should be seen engulfed in fire.”

Image from the Center for Peace Communications’ ‘Whispered in Gaza’ series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)

Last month, the head of the Hamas Women’s Movement gave an interview describing the culture of “martyrdom-seekers” that Hamas fosters, in which “a girl sets out only one thing on her mind — to meet her Lord by means of her blood and body parts.” She added that “most kindergartens [in Gaza] belong to our sisters in Hamas. Children are raised from a young age on this culture … From infancy, children are nurtured to love jihad, to want to meet Allah.”

The many Gazans who oppose this worldview are forbidden to say so. Any attempt at civil peacemaking is met with harsh repression. In 2020, when a group of Gazan peace activists held a Zoom meeting with Israeli counterparts, several were arrested, beaten, and charged with “betrayal.” Unsurprisingly, as one young Gazan woman told NPR, “most Gazans have stopped believing in Hamas and the others… they don’t feed us, they don’t provide anything. How can we build a future with these guys?” Ali El-Jeredly, an unemployed 28-year old Gazan, put it more directly: “I want work more than rockets.”

“We Need a Mature Government”

In recent years, observes Fadi, Gazans have discovered that “the Palestine which Hamas wants to liberate is not the same Palestine which we as Palestinians were expelled from. … There is now an entire people there — and that, a people, and Israel as a whole, which the Palestinians actually need.” While Hamas makes it “extremely hard to talk about peace,” Fadi believes that “if we could engage the outside world, it would be possible for Palestinians in Gaza to regain their humanity. … [and] in recognizing that life has value, they’d see the humanity in Israelis too.”

Image from the Center for Peace Communications’ ‘Whispered in Gaza’ series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)

Hamas often claims that victory is imminent. Last year, Hamas politician Kanaan Abed declared, “The State of Israel will be history. Palestinians outside Palestine: Prepare your papers. You will return to Palestine after the liberation.” Many Gazans see a different reality. As one young Gazan struggling to provide for his family told the Economist, “My life is like a TV screen with no picture.”

Rather than open up new spaces for Gazans, Hamas hems them in still further. As noted earlier, in 2021, after Gazan activists held a series of Zoom conversations with Israelis to discuss the possibility of peace, Hamas arrested several of them. Hamas’s armed wing declared in a statement, “Normalization in all its forms and activities is treason, a crime, and religiously, nationally, and morally unacceptable.” The group’s leader was imprisoned and tortured, according to the AP. Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, noted that the incident reflects Hamas’s “systematic practice of punishing those whose speech threatens their orthodoxy.”

“My Dream for Gaza”

“Zainab” wants the world to know that she dreams of a Gaza without war and free from religious coercion, where “everyone can find income and a livelihood.” In this new place, “women are free to remove the hijab or to wear it.” It is a Gaza “open to the world,” with movie theaters and bars like any other city. “I don’t want there to be wars and rockets,” she says. “We and the Israelis are one people… all of us should live in peace.”

In stark contrast to Zainab’s dream for the future, Freedom House ranks Gaza an overall score of 11/100, noting that “the political rights and civil liberties of Gaza Strip residents are severely constrained.” Al-Nasser Cinema in Gaza City, once among the largest in the Middle East, was sealed with concrete after clerics denounced it as “pornographic.” Muhammad Aeraar, a Hamas official from the Ministry of Culture, dismissed cinema as “a violation of the community’s traditions and corrosive to its values,” and claimed that “Gazan citizens do not miss the cinema, nor do they sense its absence.”

Many feel differently. On a rare occasion when Hamas permitted a film screening, hundreds attended. Audience members told foreign press, “We need to live like humans, with cinemas, public spaces and parks.”

“The Makings of Our Dream Are All Here”

“Ibrahim” has a vision of a thriving, developing Gaza, at peace with Israel and itself. He wants the world to know that Palestinians free of Hamas domination can build such a place themselves, given a modicum of outside assistance. “Most of the Hamas leadership has left Gaza,” he observes, “living in Turkey or Qatar, and building a better future for themselves and their children.” Let those who want to “break the blockade… come to Gaza and truly liberate it,” he says — by building a civil society.

The gulf in living standards between Hamas leaders and ordinary Gazans has grown increasingly conspicuous in recent years. In 2019, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh moved to Qatar with his family, while the group’s deputy leader Khalil al-Hayya relocated to Turkey soon after. Since then he has visited Gaza only twice. Fat’hi Hamad, another senior Hamas official, now also resides in Istanbul, often flying to Beirut for meetings in luxury hotels. More than a dozen other high-ranking Hamas officials have followed suit. This exodus has not gone unnoticed. According to  Azmi Keshawi, Gaza analyst at the International Crisis Group, “Ordinary Palestinians see that Hamas… [is] living in these comfortable zones where they are no longer suffering and seem far from the Palestinian cause and issues.”

Image from the Center for Peace Communications’ ‘Whispered in Gaza’ series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)

Gazans have ample cause for frustration. In the years since Hamas took power, Gaza’s GDP growth has averaged one percent per year, one sixth the rate of growth in the West Bank. In periods of relative calm, such as 1997-1999 and 2003-2005, Gaza enjoyed growth rates as high as 17 percent per year. One study concluded that were Gaza’s rulers to adopt a conciliatory posture toward their neighbors, the territory’s GDP would skyrocket by 40 percent; household purchasing power by 55 percent; and exports by 625 percent. In today’s bleak conditions, by contrast, young Gazans see their best chance for a decent life in fleeing to somewhere else. One woman whose son died trying to leave the coastal Strip by sea said, “I blame the rulers here, the government of Gaza… They live in luxury while our children eat dirt, migrate, and die abroad.”

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