Gaza rights groups denounce Hamas crackdown on protests

Protesters say Hamas forces attacked them with batons while protesting against dire living conditions in Gaza Strip.

Gaza mural
A Palestinian man walks past a mural in a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip [Said Khatib/AFP]

Gaza, Palestine – Several human rights organisations and political factions have denounced attacks on protesters by Hamas security forces in the Gaza Strip, who had demonstrated for several days against the increasing cost of living and tax hikes.

The new movement was launched about a month ago, with the slogan “we want to live”, by a group of media activists not affiliated to political parties.

The first protest, which took place on Thursday, was repressed by dozens of Hamas security forces, who dispersed protesters by beating them and firing in the air. Videos of the crackdown were widely circulated on social media.

Hamas security forces also broke into citizens’ homes and carried out arrest campaigns throughout the strip in Gaza City and Jabaliya refugee camp in the north, Deir al-Balah in the middle district, and Khan Younis and Rafah in the south.

Protesters said they were attacked with batons by Hamas forces while protesting against the dire living conditions in Gaza Strip. Israa Buhaisi, a journalist with Al-Alam news channel, told Al Jazeera her father and brother were beaten up by Hamas security forces, while they were trying to intervene between said forces and a group of protesters getting attacked by them.

“A group of protesters had gathered near the centre of Deir Al-Balah camp, holding posters and chanting slogans – ‘We want to live. We want to work. Our future is lost’,” Buhaisi said.

“This is a popular movement. People took to the street to ask for a solution for their miserable life in Gaza.”

Hamas forces came to the place and asked the activists to vacate the area but the protesters refused to leave, the 34-year-old said.

Supporters of Hamas have claimed that the movement was backed by its rival government based in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Authority.

Talking to Al Jazeera, a Hamas spokesman denied the existence of a popular independent movement, however, in an official statement, he said that the Hamas security forces had arrested employees previously under the payroll of the West Bank government, who were “blackmailed by the PA to provoke chaos in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the return of their salaries”.

“We emphasise that we support peaceful demonstration, but we will not allow the exploitation of the protests to provoke chaos,” Iyad al-Buzom said.

The security forces arrested a number of protesters and took them to an unknown area, then they raided a number of homes in the refugee camp, mostly belonging to the Buhaisi family. 

“The police started to beat the protesters in the area and clashes erupted between the two sides,” Buhaisi said.

“Vehicles belonging to the security forces arrived at the scene and attacked protesters in the area. My father, who is 60 years old, tried to mediate to stop the assault, but he was also beaten up by the forces and they broke his hand.”

According to Buhaisi, around 70 members of the family are still in the detention of Hamas security forces. They took my dad who is a cancer patient, but they released him the same day,” Buhaisi added.

Movement supported by factions

Nearly a dozen Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip have declared their support for the youth movement and their support for what the group calls “just demands” – which include establishing a labour office that protects workers’ rights from exploitation; ending control of goods and prices by some parties and monitoring the work of the private sector; and suspending all taxes burdening citizens.

The factions also denounced the Hamas attack on protesters and called on the movement to respond to the demands of easing taxes.

Baker Abu Safia, a member of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), said that the Palestinian people have been very patient during the last 12 years of the blockade.

“We support this popular movement,” he told Al Jazeera. “People have the right to express themselves. We all live under occupation and the sacrifices of the people must be respected.”

In a statement, the factions said that the catastrophic crisis currently affecting the Gaza Strip is essentially caused by the Israeli occupation, and the Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007.

The factions also pointed out a number of domestic political issues, such as the Palestinian political division between Hamas and Fatah, and the punitive measures adopted by the PA against the population of the coastal enclave, such as forcing many of its employees into early retirement and not paying the Israeli power plant to supply the population of Gaza with electricity.

The statement also laid fault on the decisions of Hamas officials in Gaza to impose more taxes, which has contributed to the high costs of living and the deteriorating conditions of Palestinians in the strip.

Worsening of public freedoms

“There were serious violations of human rights, the right to peaceful demonstration and the freedom of expression,” Mustafa Ibrahim, a human rights researcher in the Independent Commission of Human Rights (ICHR) told Al Jazeera.

“The security forces, which the public prosecution abetted by preventing media coverage, violently beat up, detained and broke into civilian homes under the pretext that protesters threw stones and that the demonstration is supported by PA and Fatah.”

“This attack on human rights has clearly shown that the security forces don’t respect the human rights situation,” Ibrahim said, adding that 20 journalists were detained. “This reflects the deterioration of the state of public freedoms in Gaza.”

Ibrahim’s colleague in the occupied West Bank, Ammar Dweik, told local Palestinian news agency Ma’an that Hamas has apologised to the ICHR for the attack on its members, but the rights group is awaiting further investigation and accountability, and most importantly an end to transgressions against citizens.

“We will continue to monitor violations in the Gaza Strip, and demand access to visit detention centres in the Gaza Strip,” Dweik said.

In a statementthe Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) condemned the attack by Hamas police officers on peaceful protesters, calling it “a crime and violation according to the national and international laws” and called upon the security services to “respect the right to peaceful assembly and right to freedom of expression”.

PCHR also called upon the security services “to immediately and unconditionally release the dozens of detainees, and for the competent authorities to take the necessary measures to stop such violations and respect civilians’ public freedoms”.

‘Everyone is under siege’

Mohsen Abu Ramadan, a Gaza-based political analyst, said that the movement was a result of the unprecedented high rates of poverty and unemployment in the Gaza Strip, which has reached 70 percent among the youth.

Around 20,000 university graduates each year find no jobs, which has caused a number of social problems in the strip. Furthermore, the withdrawal of a number of international NGOs working in Gaza has deepened economic problems.

“The violent reaction of the Hamas security forces has incensed public opinion,” Abu Ramadan said, explaining that Hamas should have dealt better with the movement without resorting to physical attacks.

“Everyone in Gaza is under occupation and under siege,” he said. “People here have embraced the resistance wing of Hamas and are still participating in the weekly Friday return march protests.

“The state of anger is not directed against Hamas but against the current situation of the people, but Hamas does not seem to read the message and reacted emotionally,” he said.

Regarding the pro-Hamas claims that the PA is behind the movement, Abu Ramadan said: “I think these excuses are readily prepared from both sides. I blame some parties specifically in the official Palestinian media, who used these protests to incite against Hamas.

The demonstrations do have popular backing, he said, adding that it was not appropriate for any party to use them for their own interest.

Source: Al Jazeera