GAZA CITY (AFP) – More than 10,000 Palestinians defied Hamas on Friday to pray outside in the biggest protest in the Gaza Strip since the radical Islamist movement captured control of the territory two months ago.
Hamas’s self-styled police broke up marches after the prayers, lightly injuring 10 protesters in Rafah with stun grenades, while two Western television journalists were hurt at a rally in Gaza City, medics said.
In Gaza City members of the Executive Force were also seen beating several protesters with batons, and witnesses reported that others were detained.
Thousands attended outdoor prayers on the Muslim day of rest at the behest of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party, which accused Hamas of “exploiting mosques to inflame tensions and provocations between factions.”
Other opposition groups within the Palestine Liberation Organisation — to which Hamas does not belong — issued the same call.
The presidency, based in the occupied West Bank with effectively no remit over Gaza, condemned Hamas as dictators and accused Hamas of opening fire.
“What happened in Gaza shows once again that Hamas staged a coup d’etat with the goal of imposing a blind dictatorship and its extremist ideology,” said a statement condemning injuries to journalists.
“Shedding Palestinian blood should be forbidden! No to the breaking of ranks in the face of occupation,” said Imam Ashraf Zayyan, preaching national unity as thousands bowed their heads on prayer carpets or cardboard in Gaza City.
Immediately afterwards hundreds marched through the streets denouncing Hamas and the movement’s sacked prime minister Ismail Haniya.
“Oh Haniya, oh wretched one! Go away!” shouted demonstrators. “Shiites, murderers!” — the former a well-known insult against Hamas, which is seen as close to Iran, a majority Shiite country.
A stun grenade thrown into the crowd lightly wounded journalists Barbara Lohr and Frederic Bak from French-German television Arte, said a medic and the Strasbourg-based channel.
In Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, nearly 5,000 people also attended outdoor prayers. Afterwards, protesters threw stones and the Executive Force fired stun grenades, lightly wounding 10 people, a medic and witnesses said.
Friday’s public protests were the largest since Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip on June 15, overrunning security forces loyal to Abbas after a week of street clashes that killed more than 100 people.
“There were no arrests over the prayers in the street but because of riots and law-breaking,” Executive Force spokesman Ihab al-Ghassin said.
A religious official in the sacked Hamas government, Salah al-Riqib, said street prayers were “forbidden by religion” and “heretical.”
“The government should ban such prayers,” he said.
Dozens of Palestinians in Gaza received text messages warning them not to attend outdoor prayers with Fatah loyalists.
“You don’t deserve to be hit, arrested or killed for a corrupt gang that you know well,” said the SMS message.
On August 13, the Executive Force announced that all demonstrations without authorisation were categorically forbidden in the territory.
Last week the paramilitary fired into the air to disperse thousands of Fatah supporters during a Gaza City demonstration at which an AFP photographer and three cameramen were briefly detained.
Several human rights organisations have denounced attacks on civil liberties in Gaza since Hamas seized power in June.