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Fair demands and political exploitation of the Gaza protests against Hamas

March 18, 2019 at 4:30 pm

Palestinian protestors seen at a protest in Gaza’s Saraya Square, calling for the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas, on 24 February 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

The Gaza Strip has just witnessed a series of demonstrations against poor living conditions. They prompted widespread reactions critical of Hamas’s way of dealing with protesters, with some within the movement talking about stepping down from the de facto government of Gaza and calling for a new leadership. Who was behind the demonstrations? How were they used by the Palestinian Authority? And what are the Palestinian and Israeli positions on all of this?

It is no surprise that the Palestinians in Gaza took to the streets to protest against the harsh humanitarian situation and the ongoing suffering under the Israeli-imposed siege since Hamas’s victory in the 2006 legislative elections. The PA has imposed its own harsh financial and economic sanctions, helping to cause unprecedented conditions.

What is surprising is that the protests on 14-15 March making reasonable humanitarian demands were exploited politically by the Ramallah-based PA. This prompted Hamas to use force against the protestors amid claims that the movement has evidence proving that the PA and its security agencies were inciting them.

The Palestinians have a right to demonstrate peacefully in the Gaza Strip against injustice. This right should not be challenged by any security forces, because this puts more pressure on the people in Gaza. Hamas was required to make space for the protests and protect participants without dispersing them as long as they were peaceful in nature.

READ: Israel causing new crises in GazA says Hamas

The de facto government of Gaza believes that the catastrophic economic conditions are caused by the Israeli blockade on Gaza as well as the PA’s own sanctions. It is this, says Hamas, which is the context for the PA’s efforts to weaken the enclave by starving the people.

However, there are some within Hamas who see the popular protests on the streets of Gaza as a wake-up call that there are flaws in the local and government administrations in the territory that need to be corrected. This does not mean that the public is against Hamas, but the people are sending a message to the Israeli occupation authorities, regional powers and the international community. This message is clear: the Palestinians in Gaza want to live a dignified life despite the presence of people trying to incite against the government and direction of the popular movement. Such individuals must be identified and tried.

According to Yahya Moussa, a Hamas official and the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council’s Human Rights and Oversight Committee, the demonstrations may imply a call for Hamas to step down from governing Gaza by those who hate the movement, those who are threatened by its existence, or those who believe it is being oppressed. He believes that the world will not lift the siege as long as Hamas is prominent in Palestinian politics.

Palestinian children play outside their home in the poverty-stricken quarter of Al-Zaytoon in Gaza City [Ezz Zanoun/Apaimages]

“Regardless of the basis of each party,” he explained, “their demand is reasonable and meets with Hamas’s desire to form a collective leadership in Gaza, a desire it has proposed repeatedly to the other factions. However, they have rejected this every time.” He called on Hamas to announce its willingness to meet the public demand to step down from government at a month’s notice. He also noted that the factions, civil society and national figures must determine a suitable way to take over the government departments.

Hamas was surprised by the momentum of the protests, regardless of their political exploitation by the PA, which required the movement to be more vigilant in terms of security. This is simply because conditions are dire in Gaza and no household has been spared the suffering.

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The movement, though, must demonstrate more wisdom in how it deals with such protests; a brutal security response is only ever going to bring condemnation upon its head, and political friends and allies will turn against it. It could have pushed its members to participate in the protests because they are also harmed by the siege and living conditions. Instead, it opted for confrontation with the angry masses and stands to lose its considerable popular base, which represents its real political capital.

Official statements from the PA and Fatah, which controls it, regard the protests as the first step towards overthrowing Hamas in Gaza. Fatah and the PA clearly showed their eagerness to reinforce the youth movement in Gaza and back its activity in the field. They went as far as having Hussain Al-Sheikh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and Minister of Civil Affairs, announce that the PA had contacted several influential neighbouring countries to intervene and put pressure on Hamas to stop its oppressive measures against the people. He did not mention which countries, although media reports mentioned that he met with the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the [Occupied Palestinian] Territories, Major General Kamil Abu Rokon, to discuss the Gaza demonstrations.

Fatah spokesmen also, apparently, encouraged the Palestinians to participate in the protests and accuse Hamas of torturing them. The PA-linked television station had a live broadcast of the protests and broadcast inflammatory messages against Hamas.

According to Fahmi Shabana, the former executive director of the intelligence service in Ramallah, mobilising the public and pumping money to some individuals is nothing new for the PA as it seeks to take advantage of the bad conditions. Palestinian intelligence agents are paid to agitate against Hamas in Gaza and there are agreements with influential countries to make the situation in Gaza unbearable and on the verge of exploding.

While the majority of the demonstrators have nothing to do with this partisan political agenda and the settling of accounts between Fatah and Hamas, they are being used by the PA. That is why Hamas used force to disperse protesters; it is both fearful for its own position and is aware that the people are speaking the truth, but are being exploited for the wrong reasons.

READ: Abbas’ new government ‘reinforces division’ says Hamas

The exploitation of the protests for political purposes was not limited to Fatah and the PA; the left-wing factions that have participated in the National Committee for Breaking the Siege since March 2018 and became very close to Hamas are also guilty. They all met with Fatah for the first time in a year, but excluded Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They demanded that those who attacked the protests should be held accountable. They also called on Hamas to apologise and held it responsible for the difficult economic conditions in Gaza, ignoring the role played by the PA’s own sanctions and the Israeli siege, mentioning them only briefly.

I should mention that these left-wing factions agree with Hamas on many critical political issues such as the resistance programme; the rejection of the political moves towards Israel; the call to stop security coordination with the occupation authorities; and the opposition to the unilateral approach led by President Mahmoud Abbas. However, in this crisis, they have disregarded all of this and decided to stand by the PA, which excludes them from all decision-making and deprives them of their financial dues.

Perhaps the left-wing factions think that the Gaza demonstrations might actually bring down Hamas. Based on purely partisan logic, therefore, they wanted to be a part of this movement, which reflects a Machiavellian opportunism that contradicts their declared principles and slogans.

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Moreover, Israel was not far from the protests. According to Israeli military expert Or Heller, the country’s dream scenario for the Gaza issue is for the Hamas government to be overthrown by the people in the enclave themselves. He also noted that the Israeli security agencies are monitoring the course of the demonstrations against Hamas closely.

One former officer in the Israeli Military Intelligence Service, Yoni Ben Menachem, said openly that the PA is seeking to exploit the situation in Gaza and is paying people to participate in the protests, taking advantage of the difficult economic situation. Right-wing MK Moti Yogev, meanwhile, declared that he encourages the residents of the Gaza Strip to join the protests in the hope of helping them to destroy Hamas and establish a leadership that will turn Gaza into a prosperous area.

The people of Gaza have demonstrated with reasonable demands and slogans that no Palestinian would disagree with. Hamas should have accepted them as a message of anger at the poor conditions experienced in the Gaza Strip, whether due to the Israeli blockade, the PA’s sanctions or Hamas’s administrative performance. However, the PA’s exploitation of events is most unfortunate, and likely to lead to complete chaos benefiting only Israel and those who wish harm on the besieged Gaza Strip and its people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.