This article, the second in a series of three, presents nine short, animated interviews with residents of the Gaza Strip.
Produced by the Center for Peace Communications, a New York nonprofit, they are being published by The Times of Israel because they represent a rare opportunity for ordinary, courageous Gazans to tell the world what life is like under the rule of Hamas.
All interviews were conducted over the course of 2022. The speakers all currently reside in Gaza.
Last week, in the first installment, Gazan men and women described their professional disenfranchisement by Hamas and the repression of their personal freedoms. They told of arbitrary arrests, shakedowns of small-time merchants, and the silencing of journalists. Voicing staunch support for Palestinian self-determination, they also denounced Hamas as harming that cause by starting wars with Israel it cannot win while hiding in bunkers and leaving civilians to suffer casualties. They conveyed an understanding of Hamas warfare, moreover, as a play for aid money that the movement goes on to plunder.
In this installment, we learn more about local grievances, as well as a homegrown attempt to do something about them: the effort waged by approximately 1,000 Gazans in 2019 to challenge Hamas authority through street demonstrations. Four veterans of that protest movement recount their experience and explain how it reshaped their lives and outlook.
The Times of Israel’s French site is carrying a French edition of the clips. An Arabic-language edition is being presented on alarabiya.net, a Persian edition via the newspaper Kayhan, a Spanish edition on Infobae, and a Portuguese edition on RecordTV.
Related: Introducing ‘Whispered in Gaza’ — 25 short, animated interviews on life under Hamas
Related: ‘Whispered in Gaza’ – Part 1. What’s life like under Hamas? Unique, courageous testimony
All names have been changed, and CPC employed animation and voice-altering technology to protect speakers’ identity.
The Times of Israel viewed the original footage as used in the animated clips, confirming the speakers’ identity and that their testimony has been accurately translated.
The participants consented to be interviewed for the sake of relaying their ideas and experiences to an international audience, noted CPC president Joseph Braude, adding, “They want these stories to be heard.”
Watch the clips one by one below, alongside context and sources about the widespread phenomena they portray. (You can also watch the entire playlist, now totaling 17 videos, here.)
Nepotism Is Everywhere
“There’s nepotism in everything here,” according to Ashraf. On the one hand, for example, you need friends in the Hamas-run electric company to get a break on your bill. You’ll be taxed exorbitantly otherwise — especially if you happen to be among the 17,000 Gazans with a permit to work in Israel. On the other hand, Ashraf observes, a young relative of Hamas official Yahya Musa who mocked Hamas on social media was roaming free only two days later — for an offense that would see an ordinary Gazan “in jail to this day.”
The belief that Hamas institutions are corrupt, shared by 73 percent of Gazans according to a September 2022 survey, stems from a number of manifest signs, of which nepotism, according to a 2022 study by Aman Transparency Palestine, is the most common. Gazan social media last summer saw an outburst of criticism of leaders ”who can live in Gaza at the height of luxury and yet choose to abandon it for the hotels and villas of Doha and Istanbul.” During last summer’s attempted revival of the “We Want to Live” protest movement as a Gazan social media campaign, one woman observed, “Everyone in Gaza is suffering from the situation. The only ones who enjoy their life are the officials and their children,” according to The New Arab.
What I Want for My Children
A further source of anguish is shared by parents like Amna, who wants her children to have a decent education, “to think rationally… and live a modern life.” She fears sending them to Hamas-run schools for this reason — “because that’s where they indoctrinate people,” instructing children “how they can go to heaven” through martyrdom, “and I don’t want my kids to be exposed to that indoctrination.”
By way of context, in the years before Hamas seized power in 2007, a new discussion about the need for Arab education reform was spreading in the region. As the UN’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report put it, “Today’s global information marketplace requires a different kind of education, one that imparts the competencies, attitudes, and intellectual agility conducive to systemic and critical thinking within a knowledge-driven economy.” Whereas some Arab countries have seen steps forward in this direction, Hamas has transformed Gazan education into a system for ideological indoctrination and military recruitment. Gender segregation is imposed not only on students but on teachers.
“They monitor [us] when we talk to our male colleagues and they humiliate us if we don’t dress in the way they want us to,” one Gazan teacher told the Atlantic. Rules are enforced by “modesty police,” who are known to abuse those in their custody.
As Amna makes clear, she wants a different future for her children.
Forbidden to Say We Don’t Want War
Gazans’ suffering under Hamas is compounded, says Yasmin, by the feeling that Arabs across the region do not understand what life under Hamas rule is really like. “A lot of the [Arab] media outlets are working for Hamas,” she explains. “They depict Hamas as heroes.” Meanwhile, “If you’re a Gazan citizen who says, ‘I don’t want war,’ you’re branded a traitor.”
Hamas-friendly narratives have long enjoyed a dominant position in Arab media. One quantitative analysis of Al Jazeera’s reporting found that it “has significantly elevated and prioritized” Hamas “and the resistance narrative in its coverage.” Al Jazeera even received an award for its “professionalism” in covering Hamas from Hamas itself. Meanwhile, the movement also enjoys staunch backing from all Iranian government-owned media, with over 210 outlets in 35 countries, as well as Russian state-backed media, which rank among the most influential in Arab media today.
A crucial component of Hamas’s narrative dominance is its control of media and reporting within the coastal strip. Some outlets it administers directly, such as Shehab News Agency and Al-Aqsa Radio. Ibrahim Daher, director of the official Al-Aqsa Radio, told the Washington Post, “We are the leading reason behind Hamas’s popularity… In any Hamas action, we spread the word about it and then stop any rumors about the party.” When news unfavorable to Hamas breaks, he explained, “our policy has always been to keep silent.” Asked about the cost of Hamas’s policies in Gaza, Daher said, “We aren’t interested in showing other things, like any success by the Israelis or how businesses were hurt by the war.” Nongovernment journalists are contained through other means, including arrest, interrogation, and physical abuse. In 2019, after reporting on a corruption scandal that implicated Hamas, independent journalist Hajar Harb was arrested, “threatened with physical harm, and even accused of being a collaborator with Israel.” “I’m paying the price of doing an investigative piece about corruption in Gaza,” she said. “How is this fair?”
The Crime of Counseling
Amid the pressures of life in Gaza, many crave an outlet to air and manage their feelings. So Layla opened a counseling center in her house, tending to the emotional needs of women and children. “Solving their problems made me happy,” she says. Hamas authorities, however, demanded that she either shut the center down or work under their oversight, “so that the issues would be contained … [lest] people go out and protest what the authorities are doing.” One day, police arrived, surrounding her home on all sides.
Fifteen years of Hamas rule have left Gazans with few opportunities to air unsanctioned grievances. One Human Rights Watch report notes, “Hamas authorities routinely arrest and torture peaceful critics and opponents with impunity.” Another report found that this ongoing abuse may constitute “crimes against humanity, given its systematic nature over many years.” In the same period, abuse and harassment of women has soared.
According to Freedom House, Hamas is “reluctant to pursue such cases,” so “rape and domestic violence remain underreported and frequently go unpunished.” Even so, a recent survey found that 37.5 percent of women in Gaza had experienced violence in the past year.
Were Gaza’s women free to air their grievances at forums like Layla’s, the true scale of the problem — and authorities’ disinterest in addressing it — could pose a challenge to the rulers of the Strip. As Hamas discovered in 2019, there are plenty of brave youths in the area who want change and have the courage to demand it.
The Crime of Wanting to Live
In 2019, approximately 1,000 Gazans waged street demonstrations under the banner “We Want to Live.” Rana was one of them. “The people wanted its voice to be heard by the government,” she explains. “But as I’m sure you saw, Hamas responded with the opposite of what we had hoped … with every kind of brutality.”
Indeed, it was reported at the time that police fired at demonstrators, stormed houses around the Strip, and arrested anyone suspected of involvement. An Amnesty International official observed, “The crackdown on freedom of expression and the use of torture in Gaza has reached alarming new levels… we have seen shocking human rights violations carried out by Hamas security forces against peaceful protesters, journalists, and rights workers.”
Among the victims was Momen al-Natour, a protest organizer. Hamas stormed his house and threatened his parents, demanding his whereabouts. Both he and others arrested were “tortured, humiliated, and accused of collaborating with Israel and the PA,” al-Natour said. The violence, he added, shows that “this is a partisan police fight to protect Hamas, not the people.” Another protest leader whose family faced similar mistreatment told AP, “Hamas doesn’t want us to scream. It wants us to die in silence.”
I Used to Be a Dreamer
Another demonstrator, Walid, describes being jailed by Hamas seven times. Before the protests, “I was a young dreamer, dreaming about change,” he recalls. “I hadn’t imagined that they would brand us as traitors … we meant no harm to anyone, after all.” What changed his life, he says, was the experience of looking his torturers in the eyes.
Though Hamas claims to respect Palestinians’ right to free expression, its behavior shows otherwise. In addition to firing into crowds, raiding houses, and arresting over 1,000 demonstrators, Hamas reportedly abused untold numbers in custody. Nineteen-year-old Amir Abu Oun, for example, “was detained and held for five days, during which he said he was slapped, beaten and deprived of food.”
Part of the Hamas response to the 2019 demonstrations was to work systematically to brand protesters as traitors. In 2019, pro-Hamas media outlets, both within the Strip and in other Arab countries, were enlisted to tar Gazan protesters as “collaborators” with Israeli security forces. One Hamas security official claimed, “These protests are driven by foreign parties and these parties are seeking to destabilize the Gaza Strip.”
As pro-Hamas media from various Arab countries echo these talking points, they reinforce the feeling within Gaza that many in the region confuse support for Hamas with support for the Palestinians who live under Hamas control.
Change Comes from the People
Safa, a Gazan photojournalist, tried to support the 2019 demonstrations by providing coverage to international outlets. Police smashed her camera and her hand, jailed and tortured her family members, and even threatened her relatives abroad that if they posted information about the protests on social media, their loved ones back home would be punished. Unbowed, Safa believes that “in the end, something will happen that makes them take to the streets again.”
According to the International Federation of Journalists, 42 Gazan journalists were “targeted” during the 2019 protests, facing “physical assaults, summons, threats, home arrests, and seizure of equipment.” Freedom House, which gives Gaza a score of 0/4 for media freedom, reports, “Gazan journalists and bloggers continue to face repression, usually at the hands of the Hamas government’s internal security apparatus.” The Foreign Press Association noted that its repression of the 2019 “We Want to Live” movement was just “the latest in a string of chilling attacks on reporters in Gaza.”
Hamas’s tactic of targeting critics’ families is a common thread in such episodes. In October 2022, one Gazan media activist posted a video of a Hamas enforcer threatening the activist’s parents in an attempt to silence him. When Osama al-Kahlout, an independent journalist, published a photograph of one protester with a sign reading “I want to live in dignity,” Hamas broke into his family’s home, smashed his furniture, and beat him on the way to the police station. There he was “advised” not to report on any more protests. As he later said, however, “I’m a journalist. I don’t regret covering it.”
Though more than three years have passed since the demonstrations were quashed, Gazan political scientist Mikhaimar Abusada appears to agree with Safa that Hamas has not heard the last of the “We Want to Live” movement. Just because they are not protesting, he observes, “doesn’t mean the Palestinians in Gaza are happy with Hamas.”
Their Leaders Are Rich
Part of what stokes Gazans’ bitterness, according to Hisham, is the ostentatious behavior of Hamas leaders. “Nowadays, it’s not an occupier who is killing me,” he says, but rather Hamas, which imposes crushing taxes, leaving Gazans in abject poverty, while its officials have “land, businesses, and vast sums of money.”
Hamas imposes a heavy tax burden, collecting roughly $30 million per month from already beleaguered Gazans. These taxes fund a largely opaque budget, even the purpose of which is secret. Yet Hamas “offers few services in exchange, and most aid and relief projects are covered by the international community,” AP reports. Mohammed Agha, a gas station owner feeling the pinch, lamented, “Before Hamas, 1,000 shekels (about $320) a month was enough for a family to get by. Now, 5,000 isn’t enough because they tax the citizens.”
Meanwhile, despite outwardly projecting an air of austerity, Hamas officials and their families live in relative luxury. In 2009, Hamas political bureau chairman Ismail Haniyeh declared, “Our hands are clean. We do not steal funds, hold real estate, or build villas.” Yet in recent years, Haniyeh’s son has become widely known in Gaza as “Abu al-Aqarat [Father of Real Estate]” for extensive real estate holdings made possible by his father’s influence.
Gazan youth sometimes respond to such information with dark humor. Last year, local activists launched a social media campaign drawing attention to Hamas financial impropriety titled “Our Hands Are Clean.” A recent poll by The Washington Institute found not only that large majorities of Gazans “are frustrated with Hamas governance,” but also that 84 percent of Gazans prioritize “internal political and economic reform over foreign policy issues.”
A Life That Gives Us Meaning
For the majority of Gazans who do not openly censure Hamas, there is no guarantee that Hamas will not censure them. At a certain coffeehouse in Gaza, Lubna and her boyfriend used to hold hands – until Hamas police noticed their behavior, reported it, and shut the cafe down. Today Lubna is married to that same man, and at every family gathering, relatives ask when they will be having children. “It would be wrong to bring a child into the conditions we endure,” she explains. “A child is innocent. They don’t deserve to be forced to go to government schools teaching lessons that are worthless and deceitful.” The young couple hopes to build a future somewhere else.
Efforts by Hamas to impose conservative social mores intensified after the group took power. They include imposing gender segregation in schools, banning books, prohibiting women from biking, and encouraging polygamy. Hamas officials claim these measures reflect Gazans’ innately conservative sensibilities, but local rights activists feel otherwise. Zeinab al-Ghoneimi, a women’s rights advocate based in Gaza, challenged the group to be more straightforward: “Instead of hiding behind traditions, why don’t they say clearly they are Islamists and they want to Islamize the community?”
Lubna’s fears about a child’s education are well founded. Hamas-run schools and summer camps steer children toward a life of conflict. Their curricula deny basic critical thinking skills while instilling antisemitism and Holocaust denial. Children are trained in firearms use and urged to pursue “jihad” after graduation. Samir Zakout, a Gazan human rights activist, believes Hamas’s educational methods are aimed at “building a military culture, familiarizing boys with resistance, and creating the next generation of militants.” Mkhaimar Abusada, an assistant professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, decries the group’s efforts: “They can call it summer camps, but in reality this is just part of Islamic socialization … They are recruiting these kids to join the al-Qassam Brigades. Whenever there is a fight with Israel or there is a new round of violence with Israel, most of the boys will be recruited to fight as suicide bombers or at least to join the Palestinian resistance.”