Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- Thick traffic congestion caused a blockage at the crossroads leading to the Nuseirat and Bureij refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. This disruption lasted for some time while motorists waited patiently in their cars. When our taxi neared the top of the traffic bottleneck, we discovered that it had been caused by a fight among a group of traders in the sheep market adjacent to the junction.
And yet, the first observation made by the people was the fact that those involved in this brawl were using sticks and stones – unlike the situation before Hamas seized control of Gaza and the clans would use bombs and guns to settle their accounts with one another in the streets.
Hamas movement managed to forcefully seize control of Gaza and confiscate all the weapons from the citizens whilst quelling the influential families and clans that were previously responsible for spreading chaos. However, despite these achievements, Hamas seems incapable of establishing all the required elements, for an integrated system; services have deteriorated to the worst state yet and one crisis is shortly followed by another. Residents of the city maintain that it has become “miserable and suffocated”.
However, the proponents of the new Palestinian regime uphold that Hamas are not behind Gaza’s “misfortunes”. They believe it is the outcome of the war that the international community had declared upon them, along with the embargo, which they believe is supported by what they describe as the “government in the West Bank”.
According to Khalil Abu Shamala, the director of al Damir human rights organization, Hamas appears to be, “an authority where law is absent as a result of a paralysis in the legislative tools, which are the police, general prosecution [headquarters] and the judiciary – all of which have been replaced by Hamas’s Executive Force. Nowadays, if you need the police, all you have to do is dial ‘109’ to get through to the Executive Force.”
While some of the citizens enthusiastically welcomed the iron grip represented by the Executive Force, others upheld that it posed a threat.
Abu Abdullah a shop owner in Gaza said, “The Executive Force has disciplined some people,” while Siham, a 25-year-old secretary, stated, “It’s true that the levels of crime have decreased but I believe it stems from fear rather than conviction.”
Commenting on the fighting that takes place, Abu Abdullah said, “Whenever the fighting broke out a few months ago, it was likely that a lot of people would get killed.” But Hamas has banned the custom of firing shots into the air, which people used to sometimes practice as a celebratory act during weddings and parties. Today, they use fireworks and crackers to express their joy.
The head of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) and lawyer, Raji al Surani, said of the situation in Gaza, “It has not been this safe in years.” The PCHR is the largest and most important human rights center in the Palestinian territories.
Volunteers from Hamas assist the Executive Force in controlling the flow of traffic on the city’s busy streets, while drivers have become more committed to adhering to the road rules. One of the members of the Executive Force chased a car for 500 meters for breaking a red light. Meanwhile, car thefts have decreased dramatically, however theft in general remains quite rampant in Gaza, which is facing major economic troubles. Aziz Ammar, a taxi driver, said of Hamas, “They are faithful, God-fearing people. They are not corrupt.”
But this steely control over security is countered by a chaos in daily life that is both relentless and ongoing, especially in the health and sanitation services. This degenerated significantly after the recent electrical power cut crisis; the EU had suspended it funding for the Gaza power plant last Friday on suspicion that electricity revenues were being diverted. The EU has since resumed fuel payments last Wednesday, much to the relief of 600,000 Palestinians in Gaza.
During the power outage, the residents of Gaza lived without electricity and water, while the garbage filled the city’s streets. In the Sahaba Street area, a number of sewer pipes burst, flooding the area with sewage and prompting residents to shut down their shops and pile gravel in front of their homes to prevent the water from seeping in. In North Gaza the sewage water had reached several meters high, while warnings that the area would soon be flooded.
Palestinian housewives would stay up late into the night to await the brief electrical supply so as to fill their water tanks. Many were complaining that the food had rotted in their fridges, including restaurant owners and those selling foodstuffs. The authorities expressed their concern over the likelihood of food poisoning given the rotting food and the hot weather.
Faisal Abu Shahla, head of the Oversight Committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and one of the top leaders of the Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip, rejected the opinion that security had become more stable. He told Asharq Al-Awsat, “This façade of calm in security is the aftermath of the fear that has consumed people following Hamas seizing control of the state security headquarters.”
He questioned the so-called stabilization in security in light of the fact that even MPs from the PLC were subjected to attacks and assaults since Hamas took hold of the reins in Gaza. Abu Shahla referred to the attack in which Ashraf Gomaa and a number of his companions were physically assaulted, furthermore accusing the Executive Force affiliated to Ismail Haniyeh’s government of being implicated and covering up its crime.
“Haniyeh’s government continues to conduct arrests for political reasons,” Abu Shahla said while citing the campaigns in which many of Fatah activists have been detained. He added that, “Hamas, along with its coup, has dealt the national project with a deadly blow.” He called for the competition between the two movements, Fatah and Hamas, to be one that could service the Palestinian people so that they could be the one’s to judge.
Islam Shahwan, the spokesman for the Executive Power told Asharq Al-Awsat that he is extending the invitation to the Fatah leadership to visit the prisons in Gaza, challenging them to find one prisoner who is detained for political reasons. He pointed out that there were some among the detainees who had been arrested for fraud and moral corruption.
Regarding the assault on Gomaa, Shahwan said that it had become clear that those who had attacked the Fatah parliamentarian were elements from the Fatah movement and that four of them had been arrested. “Why is there no action taken against Abu Mazen’s security apparatus, which is responsible for arresting leaders and activists from Hamas? They shoot them and burned their homes down, such as the case with Palestinian Parliamentary Speaker, Aziz Dweik, whose detention is contributing nothing to helping his family,” he said.
One of the signs of danger in the way Haniyeh’s government is the contradictory nature of the decisions issued by the government and its institutions. For example, the Executive Force enforces a ban on organizing marches without obtaining a clearance beforehand. The decision was denounced by the Palestinian factions and the human rights organizations, which prompted Haniyeh’s government to amend it. And yet Hamas had organized numerous marches and events to protest against the practices of the occupation, which would have required a permit.
Another contradiction lies in the decision issued by Haniyeh’s government to stop Attorney-General Ahmed al Maghni from practicing. Haniyah’s bureau was quick to state that al Maghni had not been detained or banned from practice, while spokesmen for the Executive Force had confirmed that al Maghni had indeed been temporarily suspended from practice and that they were investigating his implication in attempting to conceal corruption cases linked to leadership figures in the security apparatus. The prevalent conception is that the Executive Force operates autonomously from the instructions issued by Haniyeh’s government.
Regarding the economic conditions, there is a general consensus that conditions have deteriorated. There had been a slight improvement after [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad’s government paid the salaries of tens of thousands of employees, in addition to Haniyeh’s government paying salaries to the staff and elements of the Executive Force – which Fayyad’s government had refused to pay.
However, according to lawyer Raji al Surani, this reimbursement is negligible since unemployment in Gaza is 90 percent, which means that the segment that benefited from these salaries is but a tiny portion of the whole.
But Hamas tries to bridge this wide gap by providing services for the poor and needy through charities affiliated to the movement. Al Salah Society is an example of these charities. The charity’s director, Ali Nassar, told Asharq Al-Awsat that it had recently provided 80,000 meals for the needy, in addition to providing for 8,000 orphans.
However, Hamas abilities for provision are very limited. Gaza was engulfed in darkness for a week due to a power outage after the EU suspended payments for the power plant. This followed accusations that Hamas was trying to impose taxes on electricity bills with the intention of using the money to fund its own activities. However, the movement refuted these allegations and proceeded to point an accusing fingers at Fayyad’s government alleging that it had been intending to cut off electricity so as to incite the public against Hamas and provoke it into revolting.
The crisis ended after Hamas agreed to allow the EU to examine the electrical company’s records. But after Hamas was saved from a sea of darkness, it began to drown in huge heaps of garbage. The piles continued to grow on a daily basis because the local workers were on strike after they were not paid their salaries for several months. And once again, the citizens of Gaza were forced to pay the price of the conflict between Hamas and Fayyad’s government. Moreover, Hamas accused Fayyad’s government of retracting its pledge to pay the local workers’ salaries – they had not been paid for eight months running.
However, the greatest challenged posed by Hamas is Fayyad’s government’s insistence on making Friday and Saturday the official weekly days off, while Hamas is equally insistent that it only be Friday. Fayyad’s government threatened that it will not pay salaries to the employees who follow Haniyeh’s instructions, which means that most of the staff will follow Fayyad’s decision – even those who support Hamas.
Another great challenge will be confronted in the education sector with the advent of the new school year this coming September. There is enormous pressure on Haniyeh’s government, especially by Hamas’s elite, to change its position and accept Fayyad’s position. Hamas’s present opposition means a disruption in the educational process. Additionally, there is a reshuffling among school principles, courtesy of Haniyeh’s government since they do not abide by the instructions issued by it. Fatah supporters who work in these institutions organize demonstrations to protest against these appointments, which results in paralyzing the work, in addition to the banishing many of the workers whom Fayyad’s government had guaranteed salaries.
Hamas tries to fill the huge gap caused by the absence of employees in service institutions, such as the health sector, for example. There is a marked absence of staff in hospitals and medical institutions, as well as the police and licensing institutions, which abide by Fayyad’s instructions and which go against Haniyeh’s.
Meanwhile, Hamas has recruited thousands of volunteers to substitute for the lack of personnel. For example, the people responsible for managing the traffic on Gaza’s streets are secondary school students who are affiliated to the movement. Hamas has also started to integrate its elements into the sectors in which they have experience and qualifications, while its institutions cover the rest of the requirements and make up for the lack. The heath service institutions affiliated to Al Salah Society alone offer services to approximately 1,000 patients daily for nominal rates. Hamas is also undertaking the construction of houses that have been demolished by Israeli attacks, in addition to providing financial assistance to the farmers whose farms were destroyed by the Israeli occupation.
Charitable organizations affiliated to Hamas strive to provide a multitude of services, which results in strengthening the movement’s relationship with a large segment of Palestinian society. However, matters have remained unchanged in the health and education sectors; Hamas’s efforts have done little to compensate for the absent staff, which has resulted in an unprecedented paralysis in both domains.
On the cultural and artistic level, Hamas has accomplished much, especially in theater. ‘Al Aqsa’ satellite channel and ‘Al Aqsa’ radio, both of which are affiliated to Hamas, have a theater troupe that performs plays and comedy sketches. The comedy star, Nabil al Khatib, who enjoys local fame in Gaza, leads the troupe.
The radio station in Gaza airs various plays; one of which is based on the political, social and economic reality of the present day. One such play makes harsh criticism of the Executive Force whose members are notoriously known for their speeding on the road.
Distinguished author and political science professor Walid al Mudallal maintains that the movement’s interest in the arts indicates its open approach. Furthermore, he refutes claims that its motive is to set up an ‘Emirate’ like that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He declared these claims as unfounded and illogical.
Al Mudallal added that the evidence proving that the two movements (the Taliban and Hamas) are different lies in the firm manner in which Hamas dealt with the groups that were stirring up trouble in Gaza recently. These groups were attacking Internet cafes, hair dressing salons and the Christian circles in Gaza, deeming them to be Western influence. But Hamas crushed them swiftly and put an end to such acts of violence. Al Mudallal also added that no action is taken against women who go to places of work or education without headscarves.
Whilst some people may be against Hamas movement, al Mudallal said, it was important to note that, “it [Hamas] does not in any way adopt the ideology or follow the same practices as al Qaeda.” According to him, the difference is that, “Hamas believes in the rules of democracy and voting, in addition to its awareness of the importance of consolidating its relations on a regional and global level, whereas al Qaeda is strongly against these two premises.”