ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 226

Palestinians receive food rations at a donation point at a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 2, 2024 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
Palestinians receive food rations at a donation point at a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 2, 2024 (Said Khatib / AFP)
Interview'It is part of Hamas’s strategy to foment dire need'

In covert interviews, Gazan civilians rail against Hamas for wrecking their lives

Before and after October 7, testimony from the war-torn enclave reveals widespread resentment of the terror group and little hope for the future, says Mideast expert Joseph Braude

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Palestinians receive food rations at a donation point at a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 2, 2024 (Said Khatib / AFP)

A Gazan couple found shelter at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, but decided to leave after noticing that the compound hid a Hamas ammunition depot. Upon returning to their home, their building was bombed, and the husband was killed. His widow’s anger at Hamas for plunging Gaza into the war is boundless in a recently recorded interview.

“The Israelis drop these leaflets offering cash rewards to anyone who can provide the whereabouts of [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar,” the woman said. “I swear, if I knew where he was, I’d bring them Sinwar’s head for free.”

The testimony is part of “Voices from Gaza,” an ongoing series of short clips — 15 thus far – in which Gazans tell of their excruciating hardships during the ongoing war, started on October 7 by Hamas with its savage onslaught on southern Israel that left 1,200 dead and 253 taken hostage to the Strip.

There is currently no independent Western media able to report from the embattled enclave. Only a handful of Arabic news outlets are now present in the Strip, but their reporters are in the best case unable to provide objective coverage of events — and in the worst case complicit with Hamas.

Testimonies from real-life Gazans are therefore crucially important at this time to get a more complete picture of the reality on the ground. The “Voices from Gaza” project is conducted by the Center for Peace Communications (CPC), a New York-based nonprofit founded by veteran Middle East expert Joseph Braude, in cooperation with The Free Press, a media company launched by former New York Times editor Bari Weiss.

“Voices from Gaza” is the continuation of “Whispered in Gaza,” a series of interviews with Gazans collected by the CPC and published in January 2023 by several international outlets — including The Times of Israel — presenting short animated video clips with poignant firsthand accounts of Gazan residents’ day-to-day life under Hamas tyranny.

In a recent interview in Jerusalem, Braude discussed his sustained efforts after October 7 to bring the voices of ordinary people from war-torn Gaza out into the world.

Today, the most prominent media outlet reporting from the Strip is Al Jazeera. Owned by Qatar, a Hamas sponsor, it is deemed by many to be a mouthpiece for the terror group.

On various occasions, Al Jazeera reporters have cut off interviewees who lashed out at the terror group for hiding among civilians, including inside hospitals. These short blips are glimpses into the extent of the antipathy many Gazans have accumulated over nearly two decades towards their tyrannical rulers, Braude said, but “they don’t capture the full story.”

In the conversations Braude and his team have recorded, Gazans unrestrainedly lash out at Hamas for sacrificing the civilian population to pursue its terror goals, hoarding humanitarian aid, causing the death of their loved ones and destroying Gaza’s future.

Braude maintained that testimonies from real-life people can have a powerful impact on the political debate in the West, challenging views on both ends of the political spectrum on the relationship between Hamas and the populace.

The civilians’ rebuke of Hamas contradicts both the extreme-left perception that the terror group’s murderous “resistance” is an expression of the will of the Palestinian people, and the idea held by some on the far right that there are no innocent people in Gaza and everyone is affiliated in one way or another with the terror group.

Tales of civilians’ defiance against Hamas

Among the most remarkable testimonies collected by the CPC after October 7 is the case of Muhammad Mushtaha, a mosque preacher in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya who, in late December, said Braude, refused to deliver a sermon praising Hamas to thousands of people sheltering in a school, and was consequently abducted by the terror group.

The cleric’s relatives got in touch with the CPC and discussed whether to publicize his story in the hope that it would lead to his release. The decision to go public, however, was a risky one.

“It was an agonizing choice for the family,” Braude recalled. “Do you sit quietly and hope that they’ll let him go, or do you make noise in order to foment international pressure?”

Eventually, the preacher’s son published an article in The Free Press. Two days later, Hamas released him, afraid that the incident could tarnish its image.

“Hamas cares a lot about communications, and they’re very sensitive to the charge that they are oppressing Muslim clerics,” Braude explained.

“This was an example of someone who had shown courage, someone who would not toe the line, who had reached the view, as so many Gazans have, that this war, which Hamas started, is running like a wrecking ball through Gaza,” Braude continued. “This is a terrible regime that would provoke that to its own people’s detriment, and even incorporate the suffering of people into their strategy to emerge victorious.”

In another example of civilian defiance, an interviewee from Jabaliya refugee camp told the CPC that he had placed sheet metal panels at the entrance to his neighborhood to prevent Hamas members from sheltering in its narrow alleys and drawing a possible Israeli airstrike.

Joseph Braude, founder and president of the NY-based Center for Peace Communications (courtesy)

The testimonies collected by Braude’s team shed light on various aspects of the situation on the ground.

On the topic of food availability, there have been contradictory reports about the severity of food shortages in the Strip, with some international organizations claiming that the population is on the verge of starvation, while the IDF has denied reports of food shortages.

Based on his conversations with Gazans, Braude acknowledged that food is scarce, but the main cause appears to be that Hamas has been siphoning off much of the humanitarian aid and selling it at highly inflated prices on the black market — even boxes that are marked explicitly “not for sale.”

“Hamas are using food as money, making additional ways of accruing funds for their war. So people are not able to get as much as they certainly want and in many cases need,” Braude said.

As illustrated by some of his contacts inside Gaza, a major factor affecting people’s access to food and healthcare is their level of allegiance to Hamas.

“The vast majority of the Gazan population are on the third degree of the rung of beneficiaries,” Braude explained. “The first level – the narrowest – includes the Hamas leadership and elite fighters. The second comprises about 30% of the population, Hamas’s true base – the stalwarts, the families, the nepotistic patronage network. Then below that is 70% of the population that really is not a part of that system, and they are the last people to receive aid.”

“It is part of Hamas’s strategy to foment expressions of dire need. So it’s absolutely essential to develop an alternative distribution mechanism,” Braude argued.

How Israel can unseat Hamas from power

Based on his organization’s daily contact with ordinary Gazans, Braude presented a vision for ensuring safety for civilians and a slow return to normalcy, away from Hamas’s repressive arm amid the current conflict.

The terror group is perpetually trying to reemerge from underground, as it did during a seven-day truce in November. According to testimony collected by Braude’s team, during the halt in fighting Hamas members came out of the tunnels and began “driving around in jeeps, shooting in the air, beating up merchants, attacking whoever they want as usual, shooting people whom they deemed to be collaborators with the enemy.”

Hamas also seems to be seeking to reassert control on the ground in parts of the northern Strip from which the IDF has withdrawn, according to recent reports.

“Gazans are not convinced that Hamas’s rule can be ended, and believe that the war will conclude with a return to the status quo,” Braude said. “How can you blame them? Four rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas have taken place since the terror group wrested control of Gaza in 2007, and each one ended with Hamas remaining in power.

“Many Gazans fear that it’s premature to prepare for a post-Hamas future because they don’t necessarily see Hamas being unseated,” Braude said. Visions for the aftermath of the war as formulated by foreign politicians, diplomats and international actors have failed to persuade the Gazan street, he added.

“Were Hamas to return to power, Gazans fear it’ll be more brutal than it was before,” he said. Quoting one of his Gazan contacts, he predicted there could be “a new October 7” against any suspected collaborators with the Israeli war effort.

Their perception, however, could be rapidly altered if visible change began to occur on the ground, Braude said.

“There has been talk in the media of protected areas that may emerge in parts of the Strip amid shifting wartime conditions, where reconstruction could begin to proceed and allow for civilian life to resume. If Gazans who are in those areas show leadership, they could demonstrate what the future could be like without Hamas.”

Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip in a photo released December 18, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

So far, however, Israel has failed to provide a clear vision for the coastal enclave after the war, except for insisting that it does not want Hamas or the Palestinian Authority in power and that it intends to retain security control over the Strip.

“There are many Gazans, including ones we have spoken with, who are rather candid in saying that they would much prefer some kind of civil administration supported by some combination of Gazans and allied countries, including Israel, than return under the rule of Hamas,” Braude said.

“That doesn’t make them pro-Israel, although a subset of them genuinely believe in coexistence as a principle,” he added. “But a larger number who believe in resistance [to Israel] in the abstract nonetheless still oppose Hamas’s brand of resistance as self-destructive, provoking a reaction that leaves civilians to suffer while Hamas fighters hide in the safety of bunkers and their leaders’ families live in opulence in Qatar and Turkey.”

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