Fierce clashes erupted between Hamas forces and hundreds of young demonstrators in Gaza on Saturday as protests against the high cost of living in the Strip entered their third day.
Earlier, it was reported that a Palestinian man set himself on fire after Hamas shuttered his shop as punishment for participating in the protests. The report was based on video that went viral. According to human rights activists in Gaza, however, the incident took place in the past and was not related to the protests. It should be noted that there have been several instances in recent years of Gazans self-immolating as a result of economic distress.
Under the slogan "we want to live," organizers called for a general strike of all business in Gaza on Saturday to protest police violence by Hamas. But compliance was only partial, as many merchants were afraid of angering the organization.
Videos posted on social media showed Hamas policemen chasing protesters through the streets of Dir al-Balah, Khan Yunis and the Jabalya refugee camp, beating and arresting demonstrators, journalists and human rights activists. The posts also included pictures of people wounded during the clashes, some of whom were women.
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Among those arrested on Saturday was Rafat Al-Qudra, the director of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation's television station in Gaza, the station's Ramallah branch reported. PBC answers to the Palestinian Authority and broadcasts material supportive of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The protests began on Thursday, organized by a group of young people on social media. The Palestinian Authority has voiced support for them, terming them legitimate opposition to Hamas’ repressive rule. Senior officials in Hamas’ political wing have also urged the Hamas government to accede to the demonstrators’ demands, as have the other political factions.
Later that evening, two rockets were fired from the Strip to Tel Aviv, a first since the 2014 Gaza war. According to a preliminary Israeli army assessment, the rockets were fired by mistake during maintenance work. In response to the fire, the army attacked some 100 targets in Gaza. The flare-up took place just weeks before Israel's general on April 9.
Representatives of the Palestinian factions in Gaza, except for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, met on Saturday to voice support for the protests, saying the protesters’ demands are legitimate. The delegates, who gathered in the Gaza City offices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, urged Hamas to stop forcibly suppressing the demonstrations, and also to stop arresting journalists and human rights activists.
Senior Hamas officials, along with members of other factions in the Strip, called on the regime to meet the protesters' demands. Yahya Moussa, a member of the organization's political wing, said the protest was legitimate as long as it remained nonviolent and called on the security forces to protect the demonstrators.
According to him, Hamas should relinquish civilian control of the Strip, conducting solely as a resistance movement to the Israeli occupation. Nevertheless, he lambasted the other political parties, charging that although they were speaking out in support of the protesters now, they had kept silent when the PA imposed sanctions on Gaza.
Hamas, for its part, organized a march by its supporters to bolster its claim that the protests don’t represent a true grassroots outcry, but are rather part of the Palestinian Authority’s ongoing effort to undermine Hamas. It also claimed that the real reason for the crisis wasn’t Hamas’ policies, but the sanctions the PA has imposed on Gaza. Political operators are trying to sow chaos in Gaza through the protests, it charged, and that is why its security forces have sought to suppress them.
But Samir Zaqut, the field work coordinator for the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights – some of whose activists have been arrested during the demonstrations – said the protest is a real one, sparked by Gaza’s worsening humanitarian crisis, and is directed at Hamas because the group considers itself the sovereign power in Gaza.
It’s true that the PA has imposed sanctions on Gaza, Zaqut said, but Hamas has made things worse by imposing taxes and fees on virtually everything to ease its own financial crisis. Hamas, he added, can’t claim to be both the sovereign and the victim.
Social activists said the protests were spurred by anger over tax hikes and new fees on numerous products, including tobacco. One video that went viral in Gaza this weekend shows an impoverished man who went to a Hamas office with his donkey and demanded to see the director, saying the clerks were trying to charge him a 500 shekel fee ($140) for his donkey.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that a Gazan man set himself on fire.