Dozens of men wearing kaffiyehs and white baseball caps burst into a demonstration held in the city center Monday. This sounds like the start of an article on another protest dispersed by plainclothes Palestinian Authority security forces in Ramallah.
But actually what happened Monday happened in Gaza City. It was a demonstration by a few hundred people calling for an end to the political rift between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and the revocation of punitive measures that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas imposed on Gaza.
The protesters, as well as journalists and human rights groups, are convinced that the entity behind the violence to break up the demonstration was Gaza's de facto government; in other words, Hamas. But Hamas and the Interior Ministry in Gaza, which Hamas controls, deny any involvement.
The initiative for the demonstration came from Fatah’s prisoners’ commission, news sites reported.
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A cursory look makes it seem that these protesters wanted to “reply” to demonstrations in the West Bank by opposing the political rift – the situation of two Palestinian parallel governments. In Gaza, the call to close the rift is a slogan identified more with Fatah’s supporters and Hamas’ opponents because it implies the return of the Palestinian Authority’s control over Gaza.
But former prisoners in Israel from all Palestinian political movements helped organize the protest in Gaza. Moreover, one person present at the demonstration was none other than Tawfiq Abu Naim, the head of the security forces in the Strip.
Abu Naim survived an assassination attempt in October, which has been attributed to either the Islamic State or Israel. In 1989, he was convicted in Israel for helping found Hamas’ military wing and for the killing of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. He received a life sentence and was released as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011.
According to a Hamas press release, a few released prisoners from Hamas helped organize the demonstration, and Abu Naim was due to speak at the protest, but his speech was called off because of opposition by demonstrators. Still, the message was clear. After all, it makes no sense that former prisoners from Hamas, who helped organize the demonstration, will be behind its violent dispersal. They, and in particular those released in the Shalit deal, were among the first harmed by the steps to punish Gaza by Abbas.
About a year ago, Abbas halted their monthly allowances and – despite protests and promises – these payments have yet to resume. In Palestinian society, the monthly allowances are considered appropriate compensation for the sacrifice by anti-occupation activists and their families; especially when these activists did not receive an official job with a salary, upon their release.
According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, located in Gaza City, soon after the protest began, the men wearing the white baseball caps appeared. Some came out of a nearby mosque. They carried signs and shouted: “The people want Abbas removed” – an echo of the slogans in Cairo in January 2011 when Hosni Mubarak was president.
It sounds like a parody of the repression of the demonstration in Ramallah the previous Wednesday, where young men wearing Fatah baseball caps attacked the protesters.
A very violent parody. The protesters refused the organizers’ request to “preserve the uniformity of the slogans.” Fights broke out, and then, as is written in the report by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, plainclothes security officers and some of the men wearing white baseball caps destroyed the stage and attacked some of the participants.
Anyone who tried to photograph or film what was going on was attacked by the plainclothes security officers and was forced to erase the pictures. “When I filmed the attacks, about four men wearing civilian clothes approached me and ordered me to give them my phone,” an activist in a human rights group said.
“I refused, and then two other guys came toward me with clubs in their hands. I dodged them and headed toward a group of civilians who it later turned out were members of the security forces; that’s how they introduced themselves to me,” he added.
“I presented myself to them as a member of a human rights group who has the right to film. But it didn’t stop them from threatening me that they would arrest me, shove me, handcuff me and take my phone.”
The phone was returned after the pictures were erased.
Beards and handguns
A journalist for a Palestinian radio station also told how the plainclothes people grabbed his phone while he was filming events. He told a field researcher from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights that most of the men who interfered with the protest were bearded; it was clear to him they were Hamas activists.
He identified members of the security forces among the demonstrators by the handguns they were concealing and their radios. Some of the protesters responded to those who interfered with shouts of “In spirit and blood, we will redeem you Abbas.”
The journalist said a senior commander in the Hamas security forces – who it turns out from footage that survived was Abu Naim – went on stage and announced that no members of the security forces were among the attackers. But the protesters shouted back that this wasn’t true; the place was full of security-force people. The commander left and then the fights broke out, the journalist said.
The condemnations came very quickly from the Palestinian organizations, the press association and the spokesmen of Fatah and the PA in the West Bank. The Interior Ministry in Gaza repeatedly promised that not only was it not linked to the events, but that it had approved the demonstration. As Hamas said in a statement, fights broke out among demonstrators because of the great tension in Gaza and the burden felt by the people.
Were the Interior Ministry and Hamas in Gaza being overly sophisticated in breaking up the demonstration without identifying themselves as the ones who put it down? If the Interior Ministry was so in favor of the protest, how is it that it didn’t stop the people who interfered with the demonstration? Or was it indeed private initiative of plain hotheads who happened to be Hamas members?
According to some participants, the men wearing the white baseball caps shouted while they were attacking the protesters: “Secularism out, out.” Serious accusations against secularism (almost a synonym for “heresy”) get hurled at the Palestine Liberation Organization in general, and particularly against left-wing groups but also Fatah, even though many of its senior leaders are devout.
The protesters on Wednesday in Bethlehem were mostly leftists; a week after the famous protest in Ramallah they challenged the PA and joined in the call to lift the sanctions on Gaza.
This time the Palestinian police refrained from breaking up the protest, only kept the order, handed out cold water to demonstrators and let them shout their slogans. According to reports on Palestinian news sites, the protesters praised Mohammed Def, the head of Hamas’ military wing, called for an end to the security cooperation with Israel, and shouted slogans disparaging the nonviolent struggle and favoring a return to the armed struggle.
Such slogans are usually heard in protests by a handful of young people identified with the left – “secular people” in the language of the people who broke up the demonstration in Gaza.