Joseph Braude

In Gaza, shouts of joy drown out whispers of sorrow and frustration

With their identities concealed in our groundbreaking animated series, Palestinians in the Strip decried what they called 'the Hamas occupation'
Palestinians celebrate a Jerusalem terror attack that killed seven Israelis near a synagogue, in Gaza City, January 27, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
Palestinians celebrate a Jerusalem terror attack that killed seven Israelis near a synagogue, in Gaza City, January 27, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

After Friday night’s terror attack in Jerusalem, millions saw images of Palestinians celebrating, including a macabre street event in Gaza where a senior Hamas official handed out sweets. The spectacle reinforced a widespread view that Palestinians writ large support Hamas carnage. Some pro-Israel voices, reacting with understandable anger, decried Palestinian society as a whole.

This is exactly what Hamas wants. Its slogan, “The people are wrapped around the resistance,” is the essence of its claim to legitimacy. But what appears to be uniform consensus is a carefully maintained facade: the hundreds or more who turned out to celebrate are not a cross-section of the millions who stayed home.

Extensive surveys of Palestinian opinion show diverse views about Hamas, Israel, and political violence. Some polls show Gazan majorities opposing rocket attacks, distrusting Hamas institutions, favoring accommodation with Israel, and prioritizing local problems over foreign entanglements.

We sometimes catch a glimpse of these viewpoints — as well as the reason why they rarely surface: witness last week’s video of the beating of a Bethlehem shopkeeper who had denounced terrorists. We also see displays of collective courage: witness Gaza’s 2019 street demonstrations, in which 1,000 Palestinians braved gunfire and prison to protest Hamas rule. The bloody crackdown on protestors and their families ranks among the most grotesque crimes against humanity in the history of the land between the river and the sea.

But these displays garner far less attention than the show of bloodlust that Hamas engineers. Until quite recently, no concerted effort was made to platform independent voices in Gaza for a global audience.

Our organization felt that doing so is vital and long overdue. In Arab countries, Hamas’s narrative dominance blocks connectivity between Arabs and Israelis, intimidates Arab leaders inclined toward peace, and turns Arabs favoring normalization into social outcasts. In the West, the same narrative fuels the BDS movement and its pretensions to speak for the Palestinian people.

Gathering testimony

We seek to help Arabs make their case for peace and against terrorist militias. They are the ones most able to puncture the region’s rejectionist narrative and expose BDS as a foreign contrivance – acting with reckless disregard for the interests of Arab peoples, against the will of a rising tide of Arab publics, and in tandem with militias unwanted by their populations.

So we approached dozens of current residents of the coastal strip and invited them to tell their stories to a camera.

Participants described arbitrary arrests, extortion, violence by Hamas enforcers, and systemic violation of their basic personal freedoms. Parents shared anxiety about Hamas brainwashing of their children. Shopkeepers described Hamas shakedowns. Everyone decried the enrichment of Hamas members at the expense of Gaza’s majority.

Screenshot from ‘Whispered in Gaza: A Policy of Muzzling’

Interviewees also voiced staunch support for Palestinian self-determination, yet denounced Hamas as harming that cause by starting wars with Israel while hiding in bunkers and leaving civilians to suffer casualties. They explained Hamas warfare as a play for aid money which the movement plunders. Some called for nonviolent protest against Israel instead of “armed resistance.” Others advocated dialogue with Israelis — whether to bring peace or enlist their help in rebuilding the Strip. Most called for an end to what they called “the Hamas occupation of Gaza.”

Considering what to do with this testimony, we drew from past experience. In 2021, we mobilized 312 Iraqis countrywide to converge on the northern city of Erbil and call for peace with Israel. Hezbollah and Iraqi militias declared war on the conference – “lest there be more of them,” as Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah put it in a speech. We did what was necessary to keep all participants safe and free.

For our Gazan initiative, we innovated a strategy to minimize participants’ exposure while maximizing the impact of their testimony. We assembled animators, illustrators, and musicians to create 25 video clips from the footage, using animation instead of speakers’ visages and technology to alter their voices. Beyond protecting identities, an artistic depiction of testimony can provide a more memorable experience of someone’s life. We then created versions of the clips with subtitles in six languages and reached distribution agreements with The Times of Israel as well as, Saudi-owned, Kayhan London, Infobae, and RecordTV. Most are publishing the material in three weekly batches — of which today’s is the third — alongside articles documenting that the tragedies Gazans describe are widespread.

Hamas lashes back

Hamas hit back immediately – with an electronic assault on all our distribution platforms. (We have publicly shared one example of their efforts.) It also scrambled a media team to counter the videos with counterfeit versions using replacement narration.

Their content predictably twists the testimony. For example, in one of our clips, the speaker explains that under Hamas, “it’s forbidden to say we don’t want war,” and change must “come from the people.” In the Hamas version, “The solution is in the Resistance, none other” and “though we’ve endured four wars, we stand with the Resistance and will never ever give them up.” in another clip, “Amna” describes her fear of sending her children to Hamas-run schools “where they indoctrinate people.” The Hamas version has the speaker proudly sending her children to a Hamas school for an upright Islamic education. We know from experience that this effort, waged in about a week, required a professional team working overtime.

Screenshot from ‘Whispered in Gaza: What I Want for My Children’

Hamas had only further exposed its perversion and fear of Gazans’ real voices.

As to the actual testimony, having entered the infosphere, it began to spread — and catalyze new conversations. In Arab countries, where our largest audience lives, social media saw expressions of reduced sympathy for Hamas and solidarity with Gazans’ yearning for a different future. In Iran, anti-regime protesters drew parallels, via Telegram and WhatsApp, between Gazan grievances and their own rejection of Islamist rule. Pro-Israel audiences voiced not only disgust at Hamas, but also recognition of the humanity and promise of Gazans seeking change. A prominent Israeli advocate of dialogue with Hamas, for his part, endorsed the series for a different reason: In addition to helping “ordinary, courageous Gazans tell the world what life is like under Hamas,” Gershon Baskin wrote, the series grants “an opportunity for [Hamas] leaders to hear the stories as well.”

Poignantly, the first public screening of Whispered in Gaza has been organized by a chapter of NOAL, Israel’s largest educational NGO, in Sderot, where families face rocket attacks from neighboring Gaza continually. The event is co-sponsored by Youth4Mena, a new NGO fostering Arab-Israeli connectivity. It was delayed by one week so Israelis could first sit shiva for victims of Hamas carnage in Jerusalem. “The path to peace between Israel and its neighbors is a complex one,” writes Tom Vizel, the event’s organizer, “but it starts with understanding extremist elements in our region, while trying to amplify the voices of those working toward a different reality.”

As a small organization, we lack machinery to amplify Gazan voices as powerfully as Hamas propagates its own. We are nonetheless pleased with initial outcomes. Two weeks since their launch, the videos have accrued more than two million views on our channels alone. English-speaking viewers rank second to our Arab audience. More than one million additional views, we estimate, were accrued via partnering outlets with separate platforms, social media reposts, WhatsApp, and Telegram. We assess that the largest audience per capita is Gaza itself, where the clips offer catharsis by airing emotions so many share.

Whispered in Gaza’s journey has just begun. It has already demonstrated the potential to catalyze a more enlightened global discussion of Gaza and its future — from college campuses to the halls of power, and, most importantly, across the Arab world. As we continue to do what we can to spread it, we urge others who believe in these voices to join us in platforming them.

About the Author
Joseph Braude is President of the Center for Peace Communications.