Gaza ‘We Want to Live’ protests rattle Hamas

Hamas’s violent crackdown on protests drew condemnation from local and international rights groups.
Sunday 24/03/2019
Indignity. Palestinian children wait to receive free meals in Gaza City. (AP)
Indignity. Palestinian children wait to receive free meals in Gaza City. (AP)

LONDON - Mass demonstrations decrying dire humanitarian and economic conditions in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have drawn a heavy-handed response from security authorities in the Palestinian conclave while posing the most serious challenge to Hamas in 12 years.

Many of the protesters were young people responding to an online campaign known as the March 14 movement, which raised the slogan “Bedna Neesh” (“We Want to Live”).

Gaza has never seen such large-scale protests directed at Hamas’s decision to increase prices and taxes on goods. Protesters burned tyres in the streets, shouted anti-Hamas slogans and threw stones at security forces.

Hamas security forces fired shots into the air and at protesters, which injured some demonstrators. Houses in numerous locations throughout the tiny strip were stormed by security forces carrying guns and batons.

Dozens of people have been arrested and many members of the same family were taken to unknown detention centres for interrogation. Among those attacked, detained and beaten were journalists and staff members of the Independent Commission for Human Rights.

Hamas was accused by Fatah of hospitalising its spokesman in Gaza, Atef Abu Seif, after he was beaten by unknown assailants. Hamas denied involvement in the beating and ordered an investigation into the assault.

The images of injured Gazans, including children and women, were shared on social media, causing a widespread uproar, even among Hamas affiliates and supporters.

Palestinian activists said their protests were peaceful and their demands legitimate. They called for improving living conditions, creating jobs and abandoning favouritism for Hamas members in Gaza. Some protesters called on Hamas to relinquish power in Gaza if it is unable or unwilling to fulfil those demands.

Hamas’s violent crackdown on protests drew condemnation from local and international rights groups.

“The crackdown on freedom of expression and the use of torture in Gaza has reached alarming new levels. Over the past few days, we have seen shocking human rights violations carried out by Hamas security forces against peaceful protesters, journalists and rights workers,” said Saleh Higazi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.

“The Hamas de facto administration must immediately launch an independent, thorough and transparent investigation into the unnecessary and excessive use of force, arbitrary arrest and detention and torture and other ill-treatment by security forces. Where there is sufficient admissible evidence, suspected perpetrators should be prosecuted in fair trials,” he added.

“The authorities in Gaza have a duty to ensure that journalists and human rights defenders are free to carry out their work without threat, intimidation or abuse. Failure to protect such activities and deliberate interference in their work is a flagrant violation of international law.”

Hamas’s actions were also criticised by the United Nations. “I strongly condemn the campaign of arrests and violence used by Hamas security forces against protesters, including women and children,” stated UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov.

“The long-suffering people of Gaza were protesting the dire economic situation and demanded an improvement to the quality of life in the Gaza Strip. It is their right to protest without fear of reprisal.”

Hamas claimed that the demonstrations were sponsored by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, to destabilise security and create chaos in Gaza.

“Fatah cut thousands of salaries of civil employees as part of Abbas’s punitive measures on Gaza to cause more suffering and anger against Hamas. This situation enables PA officials to blackmail the vulnerable if they want their salaries back,” said Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Eyad al-Buzom.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation, which includes Fatah and other secular and leftist political factions, issued a statement supporting the protest movement and called on Hamas to stop “all forms of suppression.” Some PA officials urged demonstrators to carry on and end Hamas’s rule.

Hamas alleged that some protesters were acting on orders from the Israeli intelligence service.

Israeli political and military officials praised the protests on social media. Observers said Israel did not want to retaliate to renewed rocket fire from Gaza with full-blown military action so as not to distract the protesters.

Regardless of Fatah’s or the Israelis’ encouragement, the protests appear to stem from genuine Palestinian discontent in Gaza with Hamas’s policies.

Ramzai Herzallah, a promoter of the protests who is based in Brussels, said that although Fatah has sought to hijack the demonstrations, a move he said he objects to, the protesters’ demands were valid.  

“We have legitimate demands. Gaza is a pressure cooker as a result of the miseries inflicted by the Israeli siege and mismanagement of Hamas,” said Herzallah. 

While maintaining that Fatah was behind the protests, Hamas issued a statement promising to investigate alleged abuses by its security forces and apologised for any misconduct. Rights activists, however, weren’t convinced.

“Hamas’s apology statement is not enough, its security forces must compensate the victims,” said Mustafa Ibrahim, a member of the Palestinian Independent Commission of Human Rights.

Although Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006, many Palestinians are saying it is time for new elections. They blame both Hamas and Fatah for Palestinian division and the failure to come up with a united front to face the Israeli occupation.