On 14 March, scores of Palestinians in the starving Gaza Strip took to the streets in several cities carrying the slogan "We Want to Live", calling for "equality, dignity, food and job opportunities." That day passed quietly, but the interior ministry in Gaza warned the protesters not to take to the streets again because Hamas, the Palestinian movement which has been ruling Gaza since 2007, "has been doing its best to afford these just demands." However, they took to the streets the next day in larger numbers, but they were violent as they burnt tyres and insulted and threw stones at policemen, prompting violent responses.
Sequence of events
With prior intelligence information about these protests and the real reason behind them, the Ministry of Interior said the policemen were ready to deal with them. "At the beginning, our security personnel stayed near the protesters in order to prevent any wrongdoing," Iyad Al-Bozom, ministry spokesman told me. "The first day passed quietly, but the second was full of pre-planned incidents." This caused a number of casualties among the protesters, who documented the violent crackdown and posted it on social media. But the material shared includes footage which dates back to 2007, Al-Bozom added, in order to incite against Hamas.
Haaretz reported that one of the videos which went viral on social media was not related to what was going on in Gaza. It said: "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." Another video, which also went viral on the internet, shows a woman in her 50s claiming that children of Hamas officials drive luxurious cars, while her four sons, as well as all Gaza people, are unemployed because of Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Al-Sinwar. It is true that the unemployment rate in Gaza has crossed a historical record, hitting 70 per cent, but this affected everyone, including Hamas members. The woman's claim, which was recorded in a video taken of her with the violent protests in the background, meant to incite more people to join the protests.
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This caused the police to be on alert the third day, when Fatah leaders lost their patience and claimed responsibility for running these protests. Palestine TV, which is run by the senior Fatah leader Ahmad Assaf, opened its feed to waves of insults against Hamas, calling for the people in Gaza to oust it in order to get their freedom. Fatah leader Hussein Al-Sheikh described these protests as "honour" and Fatah spokesman Osama Al-Qawasmi posted a picture of wounded youth from Iraq and called for the Gazans to get revenge from Hamas for him. This led to wider and fiercer protests on the third day. Rioters had more courage to attack the policemen, who then were ordered to end the protests, which clearly turned to riots. Tens were beaten, hundreds were arrested from the streets and hundreds of the organisers were arrested from their homes.
Fishing in stagnant water
The violent crackdown, which ended the riots, was widely condemned by Hamas officials and officially condemned by Hamas itself. The interior ministry disclosed the real reason behind these protests, which were described as having "just demands", noting it was forced to use violent methods to end them otherwise, there would have been security chaos as happened following the 2006 elections. The interior ministry also apologised to Gazans and for anyone who was harmed by the Gaza police, including rights activists and journalists.
However, several journalists and rights groups ignored all the misconduct by the rioters and the chaos they made and insisted that there was intentional plans to suppress freedoms in Gaza. Hind Al-Khoudary, one of the journalists and human rights activists, claimed she was "interrogated for three hours by Hamas officials and threatened with imprisonment." However, the interior ministry spokesman told me "she is a regular visitor to the interior ministry offices to liaise the entry of foreign journalists to Gaza as she is a fixer." He also stressed that she was not interrogate or threatened to be imprisoned at all.
Several rights groups chose to fish in the stagnant water and reflect half of the image – report the violent crackdown on the rioters, but did not report the reason which led to this violence. They did not mention that the first day of the protests, before they turn in to riots, passed quietly and no violence at all was used against the protesters. There are many effective rights groups in Gaza, which reported the full image and documented the violent riots and how the police dealt with them.
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When Fatah spokesman Atef Abu-Saif, who is a famous Palestinian novelist, was beaten, it fueled the propaganda machine targeting the security services and Hamas in Gaza. Immediately, Fatah accused Hamas of beating him without any question or deliberation. Hamas denied responsibility for this, calling on Fatah to stop insulting its security in Gaza and called for the interior ministry to open an investigation into the incident. The PA security services in the West Bank, led by Fatah, have previously manipulated several similar incidents aiming to trigger riots and chaos in Gaza. The last of which was the failed attempt to assassinate the former PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah during his visit to Gaza in April last year. The PA and Fatah immediately accused Hamas, but later on it was revealed how they recruited people in Gaza to carry out the mission.
In January 2006, the Hamas achieved an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections and won 76 seats out of 132. That victory was not expected by Fatah – the secular Palestinian movement, which had led the Palestinian national activities for decades – Israel, the Arab states and the world. So they worked together to undermine Hamas' victory.
From the first moment, senior Fatah official Samir Al- Mashharawi, who is now in self-imposed exile in Egypt, told me that his movement would never work together with Hamas. His response, which came minutes after Hamas' victory was announced, proves that Fatah prefers to destroy the Palestinian national movement than concede its leadership to Hamas.
The senior Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan, who became an MP then, told the media that he would "make Hamas hope it was never saw the day when it won the Palestinian parliamentarian elections." He and Abbas – allies at the time – cut the salaries of public servants for about a year and ordered their security agencies to plunge the Gaza Strip and West Bank into security chaos. This continued for almost one and half years during which tens of Palestinians were killed, pushing Hamas to forcefully end this chaos in July 2007 by taking control of the Gaza Strip.
Since then, Israel, the PA and Egypt imposed a strict siege on the Gaza Strip that has impacted every aspect of life in Gaza, rendering the coastal enclave "unliveable" according to the UN. During this time, Fatah did not spare any effort to push the people to revolt against Hamas. The last time Fatah did this was in January 2018, when it pushed the people on to the streets to protest against the severe shortage of electricity. Security services in Gaza allowed the protests to continue for days until they turned violent and were ended.
Great March of Return
Hamas believes that the people in Gaza are angry as a result of their difficult living conditions, but at the same time it believes that it can do nothing to help in light of the Arab and international agreement with Israel that Hamas must lay down its arms before the siege can be lifted. As a result it supported the Great March or Return protests and convinced other factions to do the same.
This way, Hamas could lead the Gaza residents to revolt against the Israeli occupation, which is the real cause of their suffering. The more Hamas succeed in leading the Gazans to protest against Israel, the more angry Israel and the PA got. As a result, they tightened the siege, reduced electricity supplies and stopped the entry of basic commodities, construction materials, and the PA imposed sanctions, included salary cuts, not issuing passports and not paying administrative and operational expenses to schools and hospitals in Gaza.
Fatah leader Azzam Al-Ahmad said: "I am the one who suggested the sanctions on Gaza in order to push the people to revolt in the face of Hamas and get rid of its oppression." Saeb Erekat, secretary of the Fatah Executive Committee, said: "We do not need demonstrations, we need elections." However, he did not say whether he would respect the results of the elections if Hamas won again. The columnist Daud Abdul-Raouf said: "For years, members of Fatah Executive Committee have called for the Palestinians to revolt against Hamas. However, this increased people's support for it. Not because of its governance, but because of its resistance."
Hamas must quit, but…
Hamas has accepted all forms of reconciliation deals brokered by different sides since 2007, but whenever it makes concessions and reaches a deal, Fatah retreats and accuses it of carrying out a coup. After more than ten years of division, Hamas agreed to give up everything except its weapons. Fatah officials, including Abbas, Al-Ahmad, Al-Sheikh, Erekat and others have made it very clear that they would only accept a reconciliation agreement which sees Hamas lay down its weapons.
Hamas cannot simply step away from governing the Strip because that would lead to a security vacuum that would see people suffer the same way they did in 2006 and 2007.
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Al-Bozom told me: "We have a mandate from the Gaza tribes and the Palestinian factions, which sometimes viciously criticise us, to maintain security and people's safety whatever the price. We recognise the people's suffering, but they do not suffer alone. For me, I cannot give my kids pocket money when they go to school in the morning. The solution is what all the international community has been calling for: ending the Israeli siege."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.