Analysis

Hamas Crushes Protests at Cost to Its Popularity

Even if demonstrators don't dare protest again, the Hamas government has inflicted upon itself a powerful blow

Palestinian Hamas supporters try to catch sweets as they celebrate the West Bank shooting attack, in the northern Gaza Strip, March 17, 2019.
REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

For now it seems that the intimidation has done its job. The Hamas regime in Gaza succeeded in putting down the protests. But the immediate and cruel repression has managed to shock even those people who tend to take Hamas’ side in the conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, or who see the Ramallah leadership as primarily responsible – after Israel, of course – for the Gaza residents’ enormous distress.

Hamas proved last week the extent to which it fears popular criticism, which at first wasn’t necessarily ideological or political. There is a tendency to believe that the Hamas leadership is more attentive to the public than the Fatah leadership. The former was given a chance to confirm this belief and score some points even among those who are not their ideological supporters. That opportunity was squandered.

In response to the suppression of the demonstrations and the detention of journalists (23 of whom were arrested, with three still detained as of Monday), journalists received a message this week to boycott the March of Return demonstrations this Friday and not to report on them. “This will be a test of the youth movement,” a Gazan woman told Haaretz. “If they don’t attend the demonstrations and leave them just to the Hamas people, it will be another way to show their strength and the strength of the protest.”

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Despite the high price they’ve exacted in lives and in the health of Gazan residents and the functioning of the Strip’s health system, the March of Return demonstrations were seen as an act that gave meaning to the residents cooped up in the Strip, and as a political achievement for Hamas, which had organized a protest that reached the ears of the entire world. Therefore the readiness – even if it’s only talk – to boycott them as an act of protest indicates that Hamas cannot count forever on its monopoly as the leading force of resistance against the occupation.

Hamas has proven that it clings to its status as the ruling party in Gaza, just as Fatah is clinging to its status as the ruling party in the West Bank enclaves. Just as the PA organized artificial demonstrations of support for Mahmoud Abbas, so did Hamas fashion rallies for itself over the past few days in Gaza, while blocking the authentic demonstrations. On Sunday it exploited the shooting and knifing attack at the Ariel junction to bring its supporters out into the streets. What it denies its opponents, it permits its supporters.

The youth movement that initiated the demonstrations promised on Sunday to revive them, but it didn’t happen. Nevertheless, those I spoke with gave the impression that there’s no fear of speaking openly about what’s happening and to share the reports with others. The way Hamas security personnel beat demonstrators could be seen from the few video clips that were distributed, despite the confiscation of journalists’ and others’ cell phones. They are reminiscent of the videos taken at demonstrations in Iran – with telephones that were half hidden under clothing or handbags, or from behind screens.

The total number of people arrested and those freed is not known and it’s doubtful if anyone will manage to calculate it. Nor is it known how many people are still being detained in police stations now. The talk of torture in detention was very scary. There were reports that some regular participants in the Friday demonstrations were among those detained and tortured. These reports are yet to be verified.

When journalists are not free and don’t dare investigate events properly, the Palestinian human rights organizations operating in Gaza become even more important, particularly the Independent Palestinian Human Rights Commission, (which acts as the ombudsman of the PA and of the de facto government in Gaza), the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights. These are organizations that criticize the PA regime when necessary, and continuously document the Israeli violations of international law and human rights.

During the wars and Israeli military attacks, their field investigators took risks to gather testimony and document the harshest of incidents. Shortly after the violent dispersal of the demonstrations in Gaza on Thursday, these organizations issued reports and condemnations – in Arabic and English – provided their counterpart organizations in Ramallah with regular information, and repeatedly sent out their people to take testimony.

Here too the Hamas security apparatuses revealed their fear of the facts coming out; policemen attacked two senior officials of the Independent Palestinian Commission – Jamil Sarhan, director of the Gaza branch, and attorney Baker Turkmani. On Friday, in the context of their work, both of them were in the home of a journalist in the Dir al-Balah refugee camp, where the boldest demonstrations took place. Hamas policemen confiscated their cell phones and removed them from the house. When they were outside, in police custody, although their identities were known, other policemen beat them until they bled. Sarhan still suffers from a head wound.

It didn’t stop there. Four researchers from three human rights organizations (the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Al-Mezan and Al-Dameer) were arrested Saturday while collecting testimony and were taken for questioning. When the lawyer of the Palestinian Center went to the police to find out the reason for the arrests, he was also arrested. But the five were released a few hours later. These organizations and their people have proven in the past that they cannot be intimidated. So from Hamas’ perspective, the attempt to frighten them was foolish.

It seems that the suppression of the demonstrations restored, if only for a short while, the emotional and ideological barrier that in the 1980s had separated the nationalist PLO groups and the Islamic organizations in the pre-Hamas era. The National and Islamic Forces, an umbrella body, convened Friday and called on Hamas to apologize to the public and release all the detainees.

Hamas and Fatah have long refused to sit together at these meetings, at least at most of them, so this is an organization without teeth. But its importance as an umbrella body is that during times of crisis it brings together senior officials of various parties and movements, albeit not all of them, and provides some sort of platform for exchanging views and calming the situation when necessary.

At this meeting, all the national organizations were present except for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The absence of the latter is interesting; during past periods of tension between Hamas and Fatah, this small organization remained neutral and was a partner to the external efforts to reconcile between them. This time one could interpret their absence from the meeting as expressing support for Hamas’ repression – or as dependence on the large religious organization.

Those who signed the meeting’s call for Hamas to apologize included the Popular Front, which is very close to Hamas when it comes to their criticism of the Oslo Accords and the PA. Although it has shrunk and no longer has prominent leaders or activists as in the past, it still benefits from its past glory, and its clear stance has symbolic value. Even if the demonstrators fear to return to protest for a lengthy period, the Hamas government has inflicted upon itself a powerful blow.