Features/InterviewsMiddle East

After decade of Hamas, Gaza short on freedom, jobs, electricity

Grim records mark the 10th anniversary of Hamas rule in Gaza — the longest-ever daily electricity and water cuts, 60 percent youth unemployment, and a rising backlog of thousands waiting for a rare chance to exit the blockaded territory.

Unable to offer a remedy, the Islamic militant group has been doubling down on oppression. It has jailed the few who dare complain publicly, including the young organizers of a street protest against power cuts and an author who wrote on Facebook that “life is only pleasant for Hamas leaders.”

Polls show almost half the people would leave altogether if they could, but that support for the group, despite three short, devastating wars with Israel, is steady at around a third. With potential opponents crushed, there is no obvious path to regime change.

Meanwhile, for most of Gaza’s 2 million people, life is bound to get worse.

The international isolation of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, will likely continue — and with it the border blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the group seized Gaza in June 2007.


Sheep graze near a lake of sewage close to the idled Gaza power plant in the central Gaza Strip 

A new political program that Hamas hoped would mollify the West and Arab nations instead underscored its ideological rigidity; while softer in tone, the manifesto reaffirms a call to armed struggle and the creation of an Islamic state in historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.

There are also signs that one of Hamas’ remaining foreign backers, Qatar, is in trouble. On Monday, four Arab countries cut ties with the Gulf nation, in part over its support of Islamist groups, such as Hamas. Qatar reportedly asked several Hamas leaders-in-exile to leave.

Hamas also faces financial pressure by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces it drove from Gaza a decade ago. Fed up with failed reconciliation efforts, the West Bank-based Abbas has warned he would cut more Gaza subsidies, such as electricity payments.


Men share a water pipe during a power cut, in front of their family houses in Gaza City

Hamas spokesman Salah Bardaweel dismissed suggestions Hamas should step aside, but acknowledged a deal to improve Gaza’s lot is unlikely as long as the 82-year-old Abbas, who runs autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, remains in power.

He said Hamas was never given a chance to govern. “How do you hold someone accountable for a failure he did not create?” he said, referring to the blockade.

Bardaweel was recently skewered on social media after asserting Gaza will remain “steadfast.”

Local writer Abdullah Abu Sharekh landed in jail after writing on Facebook that “people are not steadfast.”

“They cannot do anything because you [Hamas] rule Gaza with iron and fire … you brought Gaza back to the Middle Ages,” he wrote.

After his release Saturday, he wrote that he was deprived of sleep for five days and forced to stand for long periods or sit on small chairs.

Stirrings of unrest are quashed.

A trio of unemployed friends in their 20s from the town of Beit Lahiya said Hamas has harassed them since they mobilized thousands in a rare street protest against chronic power cuts in January. They said they’ve been detained, beaten and repeatedly summoned to security compounds.


A father and his children ride their donkey cart past the idled Gaza power plant at Nusseirat, in the central Gaza Strip

Activist Mohammed al-Taluli, 25, said pressure built again several weeks ago as daily rolling power cuts worsened, with four hours of electricity followed by outages of 14 to 18 hours. Al-Taluli said he and his friends received death threats to deter them from protesting, and that it was effective because no one can protect them from Hamas.

“People are asking us every day if we are planning a new demonstration,” al-Taluli said, speaking in a room decorated with photos of revolutionary idols like Che Guevara. “But … we are afraid.”

Palestinian rights groups say Hamas practices mirror those of its West Bank rivals. Both governments have carried out arbitrary arrests and mistreated detainees, and both monitor social media and civil society to silence dissent.

Hamas leaders often tolerate criticism by well-known figures, but strike back when they detect a threat to their rule, said Samir Zakout of the Gaza rights group al-Mezan.

Over the past decade, Hamas has also executed 28 people, most of them alleged informers, after trials widely condemned as a sham. This includes three men executed last month, after a field tribunal tried them in less than a week.

The three had been accused of involvement in killing a Hamas leader, Mazen Faqha, near his apartment building in March. Hamas violently interrogated dozens of people and claimed this netted dozens of informers.

Relatives of one of the three who were killed, 38-year-old Abdullah al-Nashar, said they believe he had indeed collaborated with Israel, lured by an Israeli exit permit from Gaza. But Al-Nashar’s father, Ahmed, said his son had nothing to do with the Faqha killing and didn’t deserve to die.

Hamas’ rise to power was fueled by frustration with corruption during the rule of Abbas’ Fatah movement. Hamas also rejected Fatah’s attempt to negotiate Palestinian statehood on lands Israel captured in 1967, including Gaza.

In 2006, months after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections. Subsequent failed attempts to negotiate a power-sharing deal and Hamas-Fatah street fighting culminated in the June 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza.

Ahmed al-Nashar, 63, said he had voted for Hamas hoping “they would do something good in the name of religion,” but has concluded “there is no future here with these people.”

Hamas said it was sabotaged from the start.

Israel and Egypt, citing security concerns, enforced a crushing border blockade, banning most movement and exports. Three Israel-Hamas wars, in part triggered by a Hamas arms buildup, further devastated the territory and its economy.

Meanwhile, the international community stuck to its initial conditions for dealing with Hamas, including renouncing violence, even as it called for lifting the blockade.

This leaves Gazans in a miserable limbo.

“Our life is just a long series of waiting,” said Abed Meqdad, a teacher. “You wait for electricity to come, for the crossing to reopen, for the situation to improve, and nothing gets done.”

Photo credits: (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

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