ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Analysis

Protests against Hamas reemerge in the streets of Gaza, but will they persist?

Demonstrations have again broken out against the terror group that rules over impoverished enclave, though such movements have been short-lived in the past

Gianluca Pacchiani

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

Palestinian demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against the territory's chronic power outages and difficult living conditions along the streets of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, July 30, 2023. (AP Photo)
Palestinian demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against the territory's chronic power outages and difficult living conditions along the streets of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, July 30, 2023. (AP Photo)

On July 30, thousands of people throughout the Gaza Strip took to the streets demanding better living conditions, in a rare display of public anger against the Hamas regime. The following Friday, August 4, hundreds of people rallied again in various parts of the enclave.

Protesters were rallying under the slogan “We want to live” — the same slogan used in the last round of protests in March-April 2019. The demonstrations have been organized by an anonymous Instagram account under the name “Al-Virus Al-Sakher,” or “The Mocking Virus,” which has 160,000 followers. Various anti-Hamas activists in exile have joined the campaign, urging Gazans to take to the streets and demand a better standard of living.

Given the near-complete absence of free media in the Strip, it is difficult for outside analysts to gauge how many people participated in the latest round of protests. According to videos circulating on social media, numbers seemed to be significantly larger in the first demonstration than in the second, when Hamas’s security apparatus adopted preventive measures.

Protests were scheduled to take place once again throughout the strip on Monday. However, Hamas came prepared to thwart them.

“In all the locations where we announced that gatherings would take place, there was a heavy presence of civilian and military security, and police cars everywhere,” a source inside Gaza told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“Whenever two people were walking together, they were forbidden to stop on the street, after not even a minute [security forces] would go up to them and tell them ‘get out of here or we will take you with us,'” he said.

But on social media, at least, it appears that the protest movement is maintaining its momentum.

“People are much more outspoken against Hamas on social media today than they were 10 or five years ago,” said Rami Aman, a prominent Gazan peace activist living in Cairo, and a critic of the terror group that rules the enclave. “Back then, people would not dare make their opinions heard online for fear of retaliation.”

Aman, the founder of a grassroots youth empowerment group called the “Gaza Youth Committee,” was arrested by Hamas several times for his activism, including one seven-month imprisonment in 2020 after he organized a Zoom meeting between Gazans and Israelis. Hamas considered this a criminal act.

Aman has been living in Cairo since December 2021, but still keeps contact with activists inside the enclave, and is highly critical of Hamas’s treatment of the population.

Rami Aman, a Gazan peace activist, during an interview on the roof of his family house in Gaza City, February 10, 2021. (Adel Hana/AP)

“Today, if you look at the official social media pages of Hamas and its ministries, you find a plethora of critical comments, with people writing openly from their Facebook accounts, showing their name and profile picture,” he said.

“You will find more positive comments on the Facebook page of the ‘Coordinator’ than on the pages of Hamas these days,” he said, referencing the Israeli Defense Ministry body responsible for Palestinian civil affairs.

“There is not a single family in Gaza that has not suffered at the hands of Hamas in one way or another, because of arrests or persecution. People are tired of having no opportunities and no way out. The only way to make a decent living is to be affiliated with Hamas. If you want to apply for a government job, you need a letter from your mosque,” he explained.

“In the meantime, Hamas leadership live in nice villas, drive expensive cars and eat in fancy restaurants. And the top leaders, of course, don’t live in Gaza at all.”

Protests long in the making

Popular discontent with the Hamas regime in Gaza has been simmering for years. Since the group wrested control of the coastal strip from the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in 2007, large-scale protests have taken place on several occasions, most recently in April 2015, January 2017 and again in 2019. Each time, protests were repressed by Hamas security forces and did not lead to any significant changes for the local population.

The current round of popular outrage was sparked by the accidental killing by local authorities of a resident of Khan Younis, Shadi Abu Quta, on July 27. Abu Quta became trapped under a wall of his own house as it was being demolished by a municipality bulldozer, with authorities alleging the wall impinged on a public road. Abu Quta died while holding in his hand a document proving his ownership of the building as authorities proceeded to demolish it.

Hamas swiftly condemned the incident in an official statement, fired the mayor of Khan Younis and later paid compensation money to the family, but as video of the incident spread on social media, spontaneous protests broke out in the city. In one video, a man was seen holding a black abaya — a full-body woman’s dress — that he found on the street, shouting: “Let the man who accepts this injustice and says that he is pro-Hamas come to me and I will put this dress on him. To the woman of Khan Younis who threw off this dress, good for you!”

Rami Aman explained that “Khan Younis is somewhat an exception in the Strip, as its residents are mostly native Gazans.” This contrasts with the rest of the enclave, where about two-thirds of the population are descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948. “Khan Younis has historically been opposed to the rule of Hamas,” Aman noted.

Following the demolition incident, social media activists took to the internet and declared a day of rage (some accounts called outright for a “revolution”) on Sunday, July 30, demanding an end to the Strip’s electricity shortage and calling for the disbursement of salary arrears to government workers.

On the afternoon of July 30 marches took place throughout Gaza, with protesters chanting “shame” against the regime. Demonstrators waved Palestinian flags, while some were filmed tearing up the Hamas flag.

In one case, some people reportedly burned the group’s banner, before security services quickly intervened to break up the gathering.

@asmarr_99

يخي ولله خانيونس زلم وزلم قد الشدة #الدولة_الخانيونسية????

♬ الصوت الأصلي – Shahdarsheh

Hamas’s security forces, caught off guard, did not crack down heavily on the July 30 demonstrations. While most rallies ended peacefully, a few incidents were recorded in Khan Younis where police reportedly destroyed the cellphones of bystanders who were filming, and confrontations were said to break out in several instances between Hamas supporters and opponents.

Hamas supporters promptly accused protest organizers of being agents of the Israeli Mossad security agency or possibly of the Mukhabarat, the security services of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

Activists were quick to point out that the protest movement is independent and is not financed or controlled by anyone outside Gaza. The only motive behind it is to demand “electricity, work, food, dignity and basic rights like citizens in any other country,” they said.

Various opposition sources reported that a number of demonstrators had been injured, and that Hamas forces stormed a hospital in Rafah and kidnapped three opponents who had been taken in to treat injuries.

One journalist, Walid Abdel Rahman, was assaulted by Hamas security forces while he was filming a demonstration in the Jabalia refugee camp, and forced to stop reporting. The incident was condemned by the International Federation of Arab Press, which demanded journalistic freedom and accountability for the perpetrators.

In preparation for the following round of protests on August 4, Hamas rounded up dozens of activists in the days prior, according to local activists. Videos on social media showed Hamas security forces deploying in large numbers throughout the Strip on Friday morning, hours before the start of the protests. Hamas also rallied its own base and organized counter-protests in support of the regime.

Palestinian demonstrators throw stones and burn tires during a protest against the territory’s chronic power outages and difficult living conditions, in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, July 30, 2023. Several thousand people briefly took to the streets across the Gaza Strip chanting, ‘For shame,’ and in one place burned Hamas flags, before police moved in and broke up the protests. (AP Photo)

Rebuke from other Palestinian factions

Various anti-Hamas Palestinian political forces condemned the terror group’s response to the spontaneous uprising.

The Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA) and the Socialist Palestinian People’s Party, two smaller parties affiliated with the PLO, issued statements denouncing the use of force by Hamas to disperse the protesters, emphasizing the right of citizens to peaceful demonstration, and urging Hamas to start tackling Gaza’s numerous problems.

Salim al-Bardeni, secretary general of the Palestinian Arab Front, another nationalist faction affiliated with the PLO, did not mince  words. In an interview with Voice of Palestine radio station, he said: “Hamas sucks the blood of our people in the Gaza Strip, through its rule over it and the transfer of its money abroad.

“Hamas, since its coup against the legitimate ruler [the PA], has not made any improvement to the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip, and has not been able to provide the basic services that our people are deprived of, such as electricity,” al-Bardeni added.

“The uprising of the people of Gaza against Hamas is not surprising even for those who voted for them in the 2006 elections,” he said, referencing the last elections held in the Palestinian territories, “because Hamas eventually reneged on all their slogans.”

A question of timing

The July 30 marches occurred while Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was in Egypt, attending a reconciliation meeting of Palestinian factions organized by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Fatah group.

“It is not by chance that the timing of the protests coincided with the summit of the Palestinian factions in Egypt,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, in an interview with The Times of Israel. “Gazans took to the streets to demand from the leadership an end to the division between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.”

Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science, at al-Azhar University in Gaza. (Courtesy)

“The situation in Gaza today is not as bad as it was in March 2019, when the last large-scale protests took place. Then, the PA in Ramallah had demanded that Israel reduce the supply of electricity to Gaza as a punitive measure against Hamas,” he noted.

“But in the last four years, Qatar has been footing the electricity bill for Gaza, while also donating $30 million each month to subsidize the salaries of Hamas government employees and provide aid to poor families, and the situation has somewhat improved,” Abusada said.

“Still, 70 percent of the Gazan population receives food aid from international humanitarian organizations, and unemployment stands at 45%. The work permits granted by Israel to about 17,000 Gazan laborers are only a drop in the ocean,” he said. “Every year, tens of thousands of young Gazans finish college, but they have no employment opportunities, and nowhere else to go.

“What the young people were protesting was the division between Hamas and Fatah. Almost all the Palestinians in Gaza believe that the misery they live in, the poverty and unemployment, is the result of the political schism, and the separation between Gaza and the West Bank. They wanted their leaders to hear their message,” Abusada said. He predicted, however, that the protest movement would soon die out.

Power to the people

Under a regime that does not allow room for political dissent, electricity has become the rallying cause for citizens to express their grievances.

Gaza, with a population of over 2.3 million, receives much of its electric supply from Israel, with a single local power plant supplying the rest. But demand far outweighs supply, leading to severe limitations and shortages.

Hamas has repeatedly blamed Gaza’s infrastructure woes on the blockade imposed by Israel since 2007, which has crippled its economy, imposed severe restrictions on its imports, and left the enclave isolated from the rest of the world.

Israel imposed the blockade after the terror group took control of the territory, to limit its ability to arm itself for attacks on Israel. Neighboring Egypt has also implemented a blockade from its side.

The Gaza power plant has never been used at full capacity. Three generators supply the enclave with electricity, while the fourth is used as an emergency backup when the others break down, Abusada said.

Constant power outages cause severe distress for residents of the Strip, with food spoiling in refrigerators, people having to live and work in scorching heat (up to 38 degrees Celsius, or 104 Fahrenheit, this summer) with only intermittent air conditioning, and wastewater treatment plants dumping untreated water into the sea, causing major pollution both in Gaza and on the adjacent Israeli beaches.

About three weeks ago, Abdel Hamid Abdel Atti, a journalist with the local Al-Watan radio, started a campaign on social media titled #Fourth-Generator to pressure local authorities to solve the ongoing power crisis. In an interview with al-Monitor, the journalist raised doubts about whether Hamas makes proper use of the money it collects from Gaza’s residents for electricity.

Zafer Melhem, chairman of the PA’s Energy Authority in Ramallah, which foots the bill for the electricity feed to Gaza from Israel, declared to al-Monitor, a Washington, DC-based news site, that the Hamas-run electricity company in Gaza collects NIS 35-40 million ($9.4 to $10.8 million) per month from Gazans in electricity bills, but a large part of that goes unaccounted for.

A prominent Hamas opponent living in Europe estimated that only NIS 5 million is needed to operate the power plant on a monthly basis, implying Hamas embezzles the remaining NIS 30 million. The numbers could not be independently verified.

A Palestinian youth walks toward the Gaza Strip’s sole electricity plant, after it stopped working at midnight the previous night due to lack of fuel, on February 15, 2018. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Qatar has recently stepped in to buy additional fuel to operate the fourth generator. Thanks to Qatar’s latest intervention, residents of the enclave now receive electricity for eight hours at a time (up from six), followed by eight hours of blackout (down from 12).

The wealthy monarchy also provides a $100 monthly grant to the poorest families in Gaza, from which the Hamas administration deducts $15.

Qatar’s role in providing a lifeline to Gaza is seen by many as a double-edged sword. “You always see Qatar providing cash assistance to Gaza, rebuilding roads and houses after Israeli attacks, they even built a hospital. But you never see them opening a factory,” said Rami Aman, the Gazan peace activist exiled in Egypt. “It’s as if they did not want the Gazan economy to develop, as if they wanted to keep us dependent on their aid.”

Voice of dissent

Mustafa (not his real name), an anti-Hamas activist in his mid-30s living in Gaza who agreed to speak to The Times of Israel by email on condition of total anonymity, described life in the isolated enclave under the rule of Hamas and the Israeli blockade as an “open-air prison.”

Mustafa said that with over 70% youth unemployment and an average per capita income per day of NIS 20, or $5.5, intermittent access to electricity, and undrinkable tap water, life in the enclave is barely livable for the vast majority of citizens who are not somehow tied to Hamas.

Leaving the Strip requires at least $10,000 to be smuggled out illegally, with high chances of dying on the way to freedom, he added. This is all because “Gazan civilians are exploited as a pawn in a struggle between regional forces, and Hamas uses its citizens as human shields to defend its project of ‘Islamic resistance’ while it silences and threatens to kill any opposition,” he continued.

A professional who describes himself as a “liberal and a democrat” interested in “humanitarian issues and free citizenship,” Mustafa estimated that the current wave of demonstrations has only just begun, since in his view the protesters’ demands are not limited to electricity, but aimed at ultimately overthrowing “the military regime and the rule of the clerics.”

With regard to relations with the neighboring Jewish state, Mustafa expressed his wish for a Palestinian government with “new, clear and rational policies toward Israel and the occupation army, without regional alliances,” referring to Iran’s support for Hamas and other radical groups.

“The Israeli side looks at us as terrorists, not as people with dreams and aspirations,” Mustafa said. “But the reality is quite different: Most of the people of Gaza are innocent civilians living in dire humanitarian conditions. They only dream of a decent life, freedom, justice, peace and democratic elections.

“This is why people took to the streets. To demand their most basic rights, an improvement in their living conditions, an end to poverty, unemployment, the lack of water and electricity, and to protest the imposition of power by force, being silenced and spied on,” he said.

“You can divide the people of Gaza in two: a large majority living under the poverty line, and a small ruling elite affiliated with Hamas and other Islamist factions, who live off the funding received by the ‘resistance,’” he added.

From his personal perspective as a peace activist, Mustafa said that “these demonstrations do not come out of thin air.” In his words, they express the “conviction of the Gazan people that peace is the solution. Gazans want an end to the occupation and the Israeli siege, and they want an end to the bloodshed that has been going on for so many years.”

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