Hamas displays Gaza grip, as protest call fails

November 11, 2013

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A Facebook campaign calling for a “rebellion” against Gaza’s Hamas rulers quickly fizzled Monday, suggesting the long-suffering residents of the isolated territory are either afraid to protest, blame outsiders for their troubles or have simply lost hope.

Hamas maintains a firm grip on Gaza even though the Islamic militant group seems increasingly vulnerable because of growing hardship in the territory of 1.7 million people. Hamas’ main foreign ally, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was toppled in a military coup in early July.

Egypt’s new government has since virtually sealed the country’s border with Gaza, destroying almost all the dozens of smuggling tunnels. The crackdown has led to price hikes, fuel shortages and longer daily power cuts in Gaza.

The Hamas government has lost tens of millions of dollars in tunnel revenues, or as much as half its monthly operating budget. It’s more than a month behind in paying its 42,000 civil servants. Gaza’s only power plant was recently forced to stop operating because it no longer could rely on cheap fuel smuggled from Egypt. Electricity throughout the strip is now on for six hours, then off for 12.

Gaza has endured Israeli and Egyptian border blockades to varying degrees since Hamas overran the territory in 2007 after defeating forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank.

“Gaza is now living under the harshest phase of the siege,” the Cabinet secretary of the Hamas government, Abdel Salam Siyam, said Monday. Under Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt allowed most consumer goods and fuel to enter Gaza through the tunnels, even as it enforced some restrictions. Mubarak, who was toppled in an uprising in 2011, did not want to be blamed for a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In contrast, Egypt’s military appears determined to keep the border sealed, arguing that Hamas is responsible for many of Egypt’s security problems, including the rise of militants in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Gaza.

“All the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt should be closed because the tunnels are harmful to Egyptian national security and the Egyptian economy,” said Yasser Othman, the Egyptian envoy to the West Bank. “Egypt can’t remain silent on this matter.”

The Rafah passenger crossing between Gaza and Egypt has opened only sporadically, and thousands of Gazans trying to get to universities and jobs abroad have been unable to leave. Othman said Rafah would be opened only when security permits.

Just a year ago, Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared to be riding high. A brief, inconclusive round of fighting with Israel last November ended with a cease-fire deal in which Israel promised to consider a further easing of its border restrictions on Gaza. With the Brotherhood in power in Egypt, Hamas also hoped its days of international isolation would soon end.

Now, Hamas seems to have lost most of its allies. Its traditional ties with Iran, a long-time financial backer, have been strained because Hamas came out in support of rebels fighting the Iranian-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister in Gaza, acknowledged that government operations have suffered because of the cash crunch. Yet he insisted that Hamas can survive, arguing that the people of Gaza don’t blame their government.

“They understand very well that Hamas did not put the money in its pocket and prevent it from reaching the people,” Hamad said in an interview at his office. “I think people understand that external factors affect the situation here.”

Hamad offered no clear way out of the crisis. He said Hamas would continue to appeal to Egypt to ease the lockdown and to Abbas to renew talks with Hamas on a unity government. Such reconciliation talks have failed repeatedly over the years.

With Hamas seemingly vulnerable, a Facebook campaign called “Rebellion,” named after the Egyptian protesters that helped bring down Morsi, also urged Gazans to rise up, starting Monday. That coincided with the ninth anniversary of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the founder of Fatah, Hamas’ main political rival.

The campaign had three separate Facebook pages, though it was not entirely clear who was behind the “rebellion.” Some of the organizers are based in Cairo. On one of the pages, Ahmed Assaf, a Fatah spokesman in the West Bank, wrote Monday: “Our masses in the Gaza Strip, go out into the street on 11/11 and voice your anger against Hamas and its armed militia.” He did not return requests by The Associated Press for comment.

Fatah official Faisal Abu Shahla in Gaza distanced himself from the campaign. “This is just the activity of young people,” he said. “They do it on their own. There are no orders and no instructions.” There were no signs Monday of Facebook-inspired protests in Gaza City.

Yet Hamas was clearly jittery. When several journalists, including one from Germany and one from the Netherlands, asked university students in a Gaza City square about the “rebellion,” black-clad Hamas police swooped in and ordered the journalists to accompany them to police headquarters, where they were detained for about half an hour.

Hamas also rejected a Fatah request to stage an Arafat anniversary rally, according to Abu Shahla. “Hamas uses extreme force and an iron fist in dealing with these issues,” he said. Several years ago, such a rally drew a crowd of tens of thousands, and deadly clashes erupted between demonstrators and Hamas security.

Hamad denied that Hamas was suppressing dissent, saying Fatah was allowed in principle to commemorate Arafat’s death, but that there was disagreement over the location. Fatah supporter Adnan Abu Jaziyeh, 63, a retired Arabic teacher, stayed at home Monday, sitting in his living room decorated with Arafat posters and yellow Fatah flags.

“I would like to go out (to mark the anniversary), but I am afraid,” he said. “There is no rebellion. Everyone is afraid.” Nafez Abu Abed, 53, who trades in cement, said life in Gaza has gotten tougher since the Egyptian crackdown. With the tunnel closure, his supplies dried up.

Even so, he said, “people will not rise up against Hamas because they understand that Hamas did not cause this.”

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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