Hamas wants you to believe it has created a benevolent sanctuary where once chaos reigned. At the beginning of the journey into Gaza it’s easy to believe that things are better....
Then you start talking to people – in private.
Young men show you bruised limbs and welts on their feet; every girl wears a hijab head covering and, for the first time, women wear niqab – Saudi-style face coverings that reveal only the eyes. And people whisper.
Welcome to Hamastan.
Ahmed Al-Naba’at, 24, sits in his courtyard in an oversized Barcelona shirt. He looks too young to be the father of the three young children who toddle barefoot round the tiny dirt courtyard.
His feet still hurt. Hamas came for him at 2am.
About 30 armed men, their faces masked but wearing the black uniforms and badges of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas, had surrounded the house. They covered his eyes and took him away in a car.
“They took me somewhere, I don’t know, a room,” Naba’at says. He has high cheekbones and the near-black skin of his Sudanese ancestry. “They were screaming and beating me, punching me, slapping me on the face,” he says. “Then they tied my legs together and started falaka” – a traditional Arabic torture where the soles of the feet are beaten with sticks. “I relaxed.”
He sees the surprise in my face. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he explains.
“When I realised it’s just falaka, I thought, okay, it’s just torture.”
Qassam dumped him near his home, hours later. It took him half an hour to walk what usually takes two minutes. “You were lucky,” interjects his unsympathetic father, who is sitting against a courtyard wall. “Most of the people they beat, they throw them unconscious in the street and they are not found until the morning.”
His crime? Earlier that night at a party for a friend’s wedding, Naba’at had danced and played a song popular in Gaza – an over-romanticised ballad to Samih al-Madhoun, a Fatah commander executed by Hamas during the fighting. Hamas cameramen had filmed as Madhoun was dragged down the street amid spitting crowds, shot in the stomach, beaten and shot some more. It was shown on Hamas television that night.
The overblown ballad of his death – “Your blood is not for free Samih/You left behind an earthquake/We will not forget you Samih” – is such a Gazan hit that many young people have it on their mobile phones. Hamas, predictably, is furious. Three of Al-Naba’at’s friends who had danced at the wedding were also beaten.
Al-Naba’at, who left school at 14 and worked as a farm labourer and painter, has little recourse. He is too afraid to sleep at home any more. His father is clearly exasperated – like many of the older generation, he thinks his sons should shut up. He points to another son, 17-year-old Mustafa. Hamas came after him when he burnt a Hamas flag: they arrested his father and twin brother until he gave himself up.
Hamas is not just going after the poor. Azil Akhras is a sophisticated 24-year-old woman with heavily kohled eyes, thick, flowing black hair and rouged lips, comfortable in her jeans and tight red shirt. Life used to be shopping, going out – maybe to Roots, a popular Gaza nightclub even though it now serves only soft drinks – and going to the beach. Her life changed dramatically three months ago when Hamas took over Gaza.
“Now, I cover my head when I go in a car. Hamas is at the checkpoints. Last week, they stopped a girl who was not covered and they beat her brother when he tried to protect her.”
She and her sister must be careful; they are alone. Their father, a former government health minister, has fled Gaza to escape Hamas. He has holed up in Ramallah, the West Bank capital, and is unable to return.
It’s not just shopping trips she misses. A university graduate, Akhras had wanted to sit her master’s degree; she wanted to travel. “I had an idea, I wanted to be famous in history. Maybe a journalist,” she says. “Now, there’s no chance, I can’t even go outside.” She resents Hamas’s repression. “If I decide to cover [my head], it will be for my God, not some Qassam soldier.”
Gazans are living in a climate of fear. The place is eerily serene, not only because of the presence of disciplined Hamas security forces on the streets but, as in all successful police states, because everyone has started policing themselves, afraid of the consequences of stepping over a line not defined in formal law.
Hamas took power after five days of vicious, internecine fighting with the security forces of the PNA, who mostly belong to the rival Fatah organisation co-founded by Yasser Arafat, the late president.
Tension had escalated into clashes between the secular Fatah, who governed for a decade and whose members stack the civil service and security forces, and Hamas, after the religious party won national elections in March 2006.
The differences were exacerbated by Gaza’s isolation. The international community cut funds to the Palestinian government after the Hamas election victory. Israel blocked the millions in tax revenue it was supposed to pass on for imports, and closed the borders intermittently. The economy went into freefall.
A national unity government formed in February failed to end the confrontation. But the speed of the coup in Gaza was shocking.
Hamas fielded only about 7,000 members of the Executive Force, its police force, which was backed by the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of the party, against the 70,000-strong government forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.
There are many reasons for the swift collapse: the government security forces hadn’t been paid for 18 months and were demoralised by the corruption of their own leaders. Their commanders fled, and many foot soldiers found that their guns were locked in storage. Hamas was better armed, better trained, and fought with the single-mindedness of those with a cause.
It was the worst ever clash among Palestinians: 110 died, and the population is still shocked by the brother-on-brother nature of the battle. Today there is a deadlock, and essentially two Palestinian governments. Abbas fired the Hamas-led coalition government and named a new emergency cabinet, but its powers run only in the West Bank. Hamas ministers refused to step down.
By Palestinian law, the government must be renewed by the parliament, but Hamas dominates the legislature and, anyway, it lacks a quorum: about one-third of its members are in Israeli jails for belonging to Hamas.
The evidence of the ferocity of the fighting can be seen across Gaza City. The headquarters of the Preventive Security Service, the PNA’s main security force, was the last stronghold. Now occupied by the Executive Force, there are gaping holes in the walls from bullets and rockets.
Abbas’s presidential house is guarded by Hamas police who brew tea under new posters of Hamas members killed in the fighting. They shake their heads at the marble floors and luxurious furnishings, contrasting it with the home of Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, who lives in the al-Shati refugee camp.
At the Muntada, the Palestinian version of the White House, Hamas fighters stroll the corridors, and dust gathers on Abbas’s rosewood desk, where Arafat once sat.
Hamas is extending its control. Nobody is safe if the example of Ashraf Juma, one of their more articulate opponents, is anything to go by. Juma is a senior member of Fatah, who refused to leave his home or office in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city on Egypt’s border. He is one of the most popular politicians in Gaza: when Hamas won the election, sweeping Gaza, he was one of the few elected from the Fatah list.
He was leader of the al-Aqsa hawks during the first intifada (uprising), and hands out money from his own pocket to the needy of both Fatah and Hamas (these days it’s from his brother’s, a wealthy businessman). His latest project is to find £5,000 for school uniforms for poor children.
None of it was any protection from Hamas. It began on the internet. Juma was criticised on the official Hamas website for supposedly sending Abbas the names of people whose salaries should be cut because they were Hamas members.
Then critical leaflets were distributed in the local mosque. “Someone called from Hamas and said, ‘Leave your office. This is a preparation for an attack on you,’ ” he says, sitting at home in a white short-sleeved shirt, dark trousers and sandals.
The next day, as he and his office staff finished evening prayers, blue police cars pulled up, disgorging men in the uniform of the Executive Force. They also wore black masks.
As he opened the door, he saw his secretary, Osama, trying to fend them off with a table. The gunmen began screaming and shot Osama in the thigh. They started beating him in the hallway before running off . “You were my sons. I served you,” he shouted after them.
Juma shakes his balding head, and describes how the situation turned almost farcical. As word spread that he had been attacked, hundreds of people poured into Shifa hospital and packed the emergency room and courtyard.
“There were so many people, the doctors couldn’t work properly. Look, they put stitches in wrong,” he says, ducking his head to show newly healed scars. The crowds carried him out of the hospital before the doctors had finished, afraid that Hamas would return, and grabbed Osama from the operating room before his broken hand and gunshot wound were treated.
They almost killed their hero. Juma fell unconscious, Osama writhed in pain. Hundreds poured into the streets, denouncing the Executive Force. A doctor finally came and treated both of them at home.
It was a night of terror for many. Ismael, 29, an English teacher for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, sits in the front room of the house he had just painted for a marriage that now will never happen.
“My last hours before they came were happy,” recalls Ismael, who doesn’t want his last name used because Hamas threatened to kill him if he told the story.
“I had just gotten engaged and I spent from 7.30pm to 11pm talking with my friends about what we would do for the celebrations,” he says.
Suddenly, his house was surrounded by armed men in black with Qassam Brigade emblems. “One tried to hit me with a stick, and I said, ‘What are you doing? I have done nothing.’ ”
They took him first to the Sayed Sayel Executive Force post. “They put me against a wall and started shouting, ‘Have you been to a demonstration?’ he says. “They became hysterical, shouting, ‘You have been making riots here,’ beating me with sticks, metal bars, stones.”
His ordeal had just begun. “They said, ‘What about the orphans?’ ” Ismael supports two orphans, Allah, who is nine and needs an eye operation, and Dina, who is 11, while trying to get them medical help through an American charity. Hamas said he should have no contact with foreigners.
They beat Ismael for an hour and a half, moving him at one point during the night to Idara Madaneh, the civil administration building in Jabaliya camp. He was blindfolded, but two young teenagers who had been taken in ran to him, screaming “Teacher! Teacher!”, probably recognising him from school.
“Then Hamas started beating me on the arm I was using to try to protect the children,” he says.
He was finally released at 4am with a warning not to talk, and not to go to a hospital. A doctor friend came round and treated him secretly.
Photographs from the June beating show welts on his back, ferocious bruises on his left arm, and a swollen right arm and elbow. He won’t show me his legs out of modesty, but says they were black, and his knees are still not right.
But that was not the worst. His fiancée’s family heard of the incident and believed he was a political activist against Hamas, which would endanger her future. Her father revoked his permission to marry and he has not spoken to his fiancée, a fellow teacher, since then. “My sister tells me she is crying and crying,” Ismael says. Can’t they marry when things calm down? “No chance. This is our tradition.” For the first time in a long story, he brushes away a tear.
“Most of the educated people here feel they are living in a country that doesn’t belong to them,” he says when he recovers.
Now that Hamas has solidified power, they are putting in place their system of keeping it. One part of this is a new “ladies unit”, reminiscent of the one in Iran where fierce, make-up-free women drag other women out of cars and away for re-education. Ominously, Hamas have failed so far to set up a court system, so cases are being heard by an Islamic judge.
The one thriving industry is the arms industry. I visit a Qassam area leader in Yibne camp in southern Gaza who has been “cooking” for three days – making the explosive mixture that goes in the rockets they fire into Israel.
He takes me to one of the many armouries they have and shows me the extraordinary range of weapons they manufacture locally, mostly in underground factories. What they can’t make, they smuggle through tunnels from Egypt.
The armoury is in a small, concrete block house, indistinguishable from its neighbours in the squalid maze of the camp. The home-made weapons I see include foot-wide land mines, tank-busting missiles, guns, rocket-propelled grenades, all stored amid the clutter of a bedroom with flowers on the shelf above the bed and a teddy bear lying belly-up on the floor.
He is nervous while we are there – the Israelis target such places if they get information from collaborators, but he opens up when we go to another house for tea, although he won’t give his name. He is unconcerned about his outside image, and this is the true voice of Hamas.
“Of course we will create an Islamic state. This is called for in the Holy Koran,” he says. What would that mean, I ask him.
Well, for one, sharia law. “For a murder, death, not this life sentence there is now. A thief should have his hand cut off. An adulteress must be stoned,” he says, in a chillingly nonchalant voice.
“There is no possibility of recognising Israel,” he says. “All the land is ours. We are taught this by our leaders and they will never compromise.”
His certitude comes from how Hamas recruits. It gets them young; my informant started at 14. Only when he proved himself “mentally and spiritually” was he allowed to join Qassam and receive military training.
And not all girls are like Azil Akhras. Gehad Nehan, 19, is studying law at the Hamas-dominated Islamic University in Gaza. She wears glasses, a hijab, and is covered in a navy-blue robe down to her thick black shoes. “Hamas has taken over the police stations and now the life is good.”
She insists women are equal, but as she talks, a different reality is revealed. At the university, she says, “the boys say woman is weak, her work must be in the home. I say this is wrong”.
Even getting to study was a struggle. “My father hits me and he punishes me and says I should not go to the university. It’s difficult.”
But despite having described Hamastan as virtually a perfect state, she has the yearning of all here to leave. “I want to travel all over the world and see people and how they live.”
Those who have already travelled are the most angry at Hamas.
One restaurant owner begins by extolling Hamas for improving security. He sits at a banquette in his eatery in a yellow polo shirt. Christmas streamers still hang from the ceiling, and Whitney Houston is on the soundtrack.
“And they cancelled all family connections,” he adds. “Before, if someone was connected to the government, they could eat and just not pay.
“But they are not the future for the Palestinian people,” he insists. “We need a government that can deal with the international community.” Despite growing dissatisfaction such as his, there is little sign that the green flags of Hamastan will be coming down any time soon.
... Back in Gaza City, Salah Rajoub is happy enough to testify that the streets have become much safer under Hamas. ‘When you see shoppers out late at night and old fellows sucking on their hookahs in the cafes, it’s obvious that people are feeling more secure,’ he observes. Yet what lies ahead for Rajoub and his friends is anyone’s guess. ‘Nobody has forgotten how Islamic mobs trashed premises where alcohol was sold and burnt down our only cinema for showing films the imams considered immoral,’ he points out. Reports say that Hamas has already begun ordering dress shops to remove female mannequins and advertisements for ‘immodest’ lingerie from their windows, while hotels have been instructed to refuse rooms to unmarried couples, or face the consequences.
Jonathan Sacks – Encampments & Journeys
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