What Hamas is really afraid of
Hamas suppression of any Gaza protest that it sees fit shows that the Islamic movement ruling Gaza is in dire need for some public support.
"I wish these pictures reached leftists abroad," my friend said to herself Tuesday as she watched Hamas police use rifle butts and clubs to beat her friends - activists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Although my friend has never been a fan of the Fatah government in the West Bank, she is outraged by the romanticization of Hamas rule by foreign activists.
Photographs of Tuesday's protest will be hard to come by, as the Hamas police prevented photojournalists from doing their job. At some point, shots were fired into the air to disperse the PFLP protesters in Gaza City, a demonstration Hamas called an illegal gathering. Many protesters were injured and needed medical attention; others were detained for some time.
"We women weren't physically attacked by the police," my friend told me later on the phone. "They only swore at us." The profanity, mostly variations on "whore," was accompanied by words like "Marxist," which the police see as an insult. They don't need to know exactly what it means - it's among dreadful words like atheism, communism and dialectic materialism. In other words, all the terms that don't explain the world as Allah's creation.
Hamas and the PFLP have a lot in common: opposition to the Oslo Accords, glorification of the armed struggle and opposition to direct negotiations with Israel. Many of the PFLP's supporters, especially the younger ones, are also religiously observant. But in terms of social vision and ideological temperament, the gaps seem as wide as they were in the 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood aimed most of its attacks at "heretics," especially the Palestinian left, then many times stronger than today.
Senior Hamas officials may watch their language when they talk with representatives of the depleted left, but the real attitude shines through in the conduct of younger activists and people lower in the hierarchy. They don't stand so much on pretense and openly express the spirit of the times.
But it wasn't Marxism that brought some 500 PFLP activists to the western end of Omar al-Mukhtar Boulevard in Gaza City, to Unknown Soldier Square in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council (or what was left of it after Operation Cast Lead ). The demonstrators came out to protest the electricity supply crisis in Gaza. Was this an odd choice for a rally by a veteran, proud political organization? Not in Gaza.
Since the beginning of the year, the residents of the Strip have been suffering from scheduled power cuts that last more than eight hours each day. Between 2006 and 2009, the European Union funded the industrial fuel used at the local power station. In November 2009 it was decided, together with the Ramallah government, that the Palestinian Authority will start paying for the diesel, in addition to the electricity bill it pays to Israel.
Since then, the quantity of fuel entering Gaza has fallen steadily. In the first week of August, for example, only 812,006 liters of diesel fuel - 23 percent of what is needed - entered the Strip. In Ramallah they claim that the company collecting electricity bills in Gaza is not doing its job properly and/or transfers some of the money to Hamas' coffers. Hamas denies this. Ramallah also says Hamas is playing on the people's suffering. The PFLP, through its protest, says it doesn't believe either side, and that the supply of energy has fallen victim of a political rivalry.
According to Palestinian law, demonstrations, public assemblies and political meetings do not need a license from the authorities. The authorities only need to be informed to be able to direct traffic accordingly. On August 5, the PFLP told the Gaza authorities of the protest.
"They said to us there's no need for the protest because the problem has been solved," one activist told Haaretz. "We said this was wrong and that the crisis was still going on. We held discussions with Hamas and the Interior Ministry. They insisted we may not protest. We insisted we may."
"By 'sheer coincidence,' an hour and a half before our protest, Hamas women came out in large numbers to the same place to demonstrate in support of the government on the electricity issue, with loudspeakers. When we arrived, hundreds of police with clubs and rifles were waiting, while the driver of the truck that carried our loudspeakers left the place very quickly, following a request from the police," the activist said.
"He was only hired for that, and he was scared. After some friction with the police, our representative said a few brief sentences about our position. After that, we were dispersed very violently." Some of the younger activists tried to defend themselves by pushing the police away with the plastic chairs left from the pro-Hamas demonstration.
Hamas understood the subtext of the PFLP protest all too well. The PFLP is unwilling to see the Hamas regime as a mere victim, either of Israel or the PA. You took power? Take responsibility as well.
But the shamelessly brutal suppression of the protest shows just how scared the Gaza government is. It has suppressed all activities by Fatah in the Strip, be it public or internal.
Last week, it prevented a protest by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the al-Maghazi refugee camp, also based on the electricity crisis. It even banned a celebration by the Khan Yunis refugee committee for students who passed their matriculation exams.
This is because any activity not controlled by Hamas or protesting the Israeli siege is defined as a threat to the movement's rule. If Hamas felt it still had public support, it wouldn't need to suppress any activity that it didn't initiate or finds unflattering.