Fatah leaders in Ramallah have been waiting for years for the day Palestinians in the Gaza Strip would take to the streets to demonstrate against Hamas. That’s why the protests against economic hardship that erupted in different parts of the Gaza Strip in the past week seemed like a dream come true for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah officials.
Finally, they believed, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have decided to launch an uprising against Hamas, 12 years after the Islamist movement humiliated the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority by seizing control over the coastal enclave in a bloody coup.
Organized by youth movements under the banner of “We Want to Live,” the protests at first appeared to be an authentic voice of Palestinians demanding solutions to the high cost of living, taxes and unemployment in the Gaza Strip. That’s the reason why Hamas did not make any effort in the beginning to prevent the demonstrators from taking to the streets to vent out their anger and frustration over the deteriorating economy.
Hamas officials thought that the protesters would direct their anger towards Israel and the Palestinian Authority – the two parties they hold responsible for the continued economic crisis in the Gaza Strip. In the past year, Hamas has organized such protests and encouraged Palestinians to speak out against the restrictions and sanctions imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The first day of the protests, however, proved that Hamas had miscalculated the intentions and goals of the protesters. Hamas quickly discovered that the demonstrators were chanting slogans denouncing its financial corruption and mismanagement. The protesters, Hamas discovered, were demanding an end to its rule over the Gaza Strip. Worse, some of the protesters were carrying photos of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah flags.
That’s when the Hamas leadership decided to instruct its security forces to take immediate measures to stop the protests before they grow into an intifada against the rulers of the Gaza Strip.
According to sources in the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Palestinians were detained by Hamas security forces between Thursday and Sunday for their role in the protests. Among those taken into custody were journalists, human rights activists and Fatah members. Scores of Palestinians were wounded and hospitalized after being beaten by Hamas security officers and militiamen.
By Sunday, it seemed that Hamas had succeeded in crushing the protests. The tough measures that Hamas took against the protesters and those believed to be behind the “We Want to Live” campaign appear, for now, to have achieved their goal. The protesters, however, say they are determined to continue their demonstrations. Earlier this week, they published a statement calling for a two-day general strike in the Gaza Strip. They also called on Palestinians to gather at public squares to protest not only economic hardship, but also Hamas’s repressive measures against the demonstrators and other Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
THE HAMAS effort to suppress the protests has not only been limited to breaking the bones of protesters and arbitrary arrests. To discredit the protests, Hamas also began talking about a Fatah-led conspiracy aimed at staging a coup in the Gaza Strip. Ironically, Hamas’s charge was backed by the rhetoric of senior Fatah officials, who rushed to embrace the protests, describing them as a revolt against Hamas.
Hamas also sent thousands of its supporters to the streets to protest against Abbas and the sanctions he imposed on the Gaza Strip nearly two years ago. This was Hamas’s way of reminding Palestinians that it’s Abbas, and not Hamas, who bears responsibility for the deteriorating economic conditions.
Hamas is now trying to portray the protests as part of a “conspiracy” by Abbas and Fatah to instigate chaos and unrest in the Gaza Strip. “Hamas has thwarted a Palestinian Authority-sponsored scheme to set off unrest in the Gaza Strip,” said a Hamas official. He and several Hamas officials claimed that the West Bank-based Palestinian General Intelligence Service, headed by Majed Faraj, was the main party behind the alleged plot.
According to the Hamas officials, the purported scheme’s goal was not only aimed at toppling the Hamas regime, but also foiling plans to hold mass protests along the Gaza-Israel border at the end of this month to mark the first anniversary of the so-called Great March of Return weekly demonstrations. The anniversary coincides with Land Day, the annual commemoration for Arab Israelis and Palestinians of the events of March 30, 1976 in Israel. Then, six Arab Israelis were killed in clashes with Israeli Police during protests against the Israeli government’s decision to expropriate thousands of dunams of land for state purposes.
“The Palestinian Authority exploited the needs of the people, blackmailed those whose salaries it had suspended and prepared a comprehensive plan to instigate unrest in the Gaza Strip,” the Hamas leadership said in a statement this week. “The Palestinian security forces in Ramallah planned the riots and sought to bring the state of lawlessness back to the Gaza Strip. They even set March 14 as the day for launching their malicious scheme.”
Fatah leaders, meanwhile, continue to deny the Hamas charges. They insist that the events of the past week in the Gaza Strip are an authentic protest against Hamas’s oppressive measures and failed policies. “The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are fed up with Hamas,” said senior Fatah official Hussein al-Sheikh. “The people in the Gaza Strip are revolting against the obscurantists and the repressive tools of Hamas. They are demanding an end to Hamas’s illegal taxes and want to live in dignity.”
In the past week, the Palestinian Authority and Fatah have been doing their utmost to portray the protests in the Gaza Strip as the beginning of an intifada against Hamas. They have also gone out of their way to bring to the Palestinian public’s attention photos and videos of Hamas security officers beating protesters on the streets of the Gaza Strip. Fatah’s official Facebook page is full of photos of wounded Palestinian men, women and children who say they were badly beaten by Hamas policemen and militiamen.
Fatah officials and spokesmen are calling the protests a “revolution of the hungry,” an “intifada against the oppressive regime of Hamas” and the beginning of a Palestinian “spring” - a reference to the anti-government protests and armed revolts that spread across some Arab countries in 2010.
Fatah’s anti-Hamas propaganda, however, suffered a major setback when it turned out that some of the photos shared by senior Fatah officials belonged to Arabs from Iraq and Egypt. The Hamas propaganda machine was quick to take advantage of the doctored photos to back up its claim that the protests are part of a Fatah-engineered scheme of fabrications and lies to smear and implicate Hamas. Several Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip also took to social media to call out Fatah for waging a campaign of misinformation to deceive the Palestinian public. Others called out Fatah for its perceived hypocrisy, noting that the actions of the Palestinian security forces against Palestinian protesters and political opponents in the West Bank are not different than those taken by Hamas.
WHILE IT SEEMS that Hamas has for now managed to quell the disturbances, it has nonetheless suffered a PR disaster.
As Hamas security forces were using live ammunition and force to disperse the protesters, representatives of 12 Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip held an emergency meeting after which they called on Hamas to withdraw its policemen from the streets and release all the detainees. The factions also condemned the use of excessive force against the protesters and called for holding accountable those responsible. Strong condemnations by various Palestinian, Arab and international human rights organizations and journalist groups were also seen as a severe blow to Hamas.
In an unprecedented move, Hamas this week issued a rare apology to Palestinians. “We are sorry for any physical or moral damage caused to anyone form our people,” Hamas said in a lengthy statement. The apology is an indication of the deep crisis Hamas is currently facing as a result of its brutal measures against the protesters.
For the Fatah leaders, the Hamas apology is too little, too late. Fatah wants Hamas to end its rule over the Gaza Strip. It wants to see Hamas humiliated and defeated, and will accept nothing less than that. Abbas and Fatah have yet to come to terms with the two major blows Hamas dealt them; in 2006, when Hamas won the parliamentary election, and a year later, when Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that at least 118 people were killed and more than 550 wounded during the fighting during the period June 10-15, 2007.
This week, Fatah suffered another humiliation when its top spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Atef Abu Seif, was abducted and badly beaten by unknown assailants. Fatah claims that the assailants belong to Hamas’s military wing, Izaddin al-Qassam. Hamas has denied responsibility. On Tuesday, Abu Seif, who was seriously wounded in the attack, was transferred to a hospital in Ramallah.
Fatah maintains that Abu Seif was the target of an assassination attempt by Hamas. Abbas and several senior Palestinian officials who visited him in hospital have stepped up their attacks on Hamas, accusing it of committing war crimes against Palestinians. One PLO official, Tayseer Khaled, went as far as comparing Hamas to the German Nazi secret policy, Gestapo. Jamal Muheissen, a senior Fatah official, denounced Hamas as a “terrorist organization” and called for its removal from power.
Fatah wants Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to revolt against Hamas. Hamas, on the other hand, wants Palestinians in the West Bank to revolt against Abbas and Fatah because of their “conspiracies” against the Gaza Strip and “collaboration” with Israel.
If and when the protesters return to the streets of the Gaza Strip, the crisis between Hamas and Fatah will intensify, further solidifying the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. What is certain is that Hamas will do its utmost to divert attention from its domestic problems by directing Gazans’ anger towards Israel and Fatah.
Hamas is now hoping that tens of thousands of Palestinians will participate in the mass protests slated to take place near the border with Israel at the end of this month. It is also hoping that more Palestinians will take part in demonstrations condemning Abbas and Fatah for their role in the economic crisis in the Gaza Strip.
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