The news from Gaza is grim. Well, no news there. The news from Gaza is always grim. I contacted some friends online to ask them just what is happening. The message back is clear: people are fed-up with Hamas.
In recent weeks Hamas handed out summonses to people engaged in protests in Jabaliya refugee camp. The first of these protests began with twenty people in Rafah on the 6th of January. By the next day hundreds were marching in al Burejj camp.
By the 12th of January the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported that the demonstrations were taking place across Gaza, including one from Jabaliya to the Gaza electricity Distribution Corporation (GEDCo) building. The police took a brutal approach to those exercising their right to free expression.
I was in Gaza in January 2006 when Hamas won the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council. I was disappointed at the failure of the independent left to capture the imaginations of people. Candidates like Jaber Wishah (a leader in the movement for prisoner rights) and the late Eyad al Sarraj (arrested by both Arafat and Israel for his outspoken views on peace and justice) massively underperformed. Hamas, meanwhile, mobilised their supporters with efficiency and precision. A new cadre of politicians – including many women – were elected.
What happened next will be recorded by history as one of the great strategic errors of the early twenty-first century, led by a US Administration with an outstanding record in strategic error-making in the Middle East. The West, prodded by Israel, decided to ignore the results of the elections undermining the prospects for Palestinian and regional democracy for at least a generation.
But all that, now, seems like ancient history. Except it is not. It still provides us with the question – how should people who support Palestinian human rights deal with Hamas?
After all Hamas is a political movement with a military wing responsible for many attacks against Israeli civilians. Judge Richard Goldstone in his investigation in to the crimes of the Gaza war in 2008/9 also identified the need for Hamas to face up to its crimes and be held accountable for them.
In addition while Hamas have pursued a dogged policy of eliminating any opposition on its right-wing. In the months after the release of kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnson Hamas destroyed the homes of the Dogmush family. They have targeted individuals and groups with links to Da’esh and al Qa’ida. During the last Gaza war they extra-judicially executed alleged collaborators in public.
And while Hamas has not pursued a legislative agenda against women they have instigated a cultural war. There are no Hamas religious police but there are plenty who feel empowered to target women’s dress and public behaviour. As a consequence women feel increasingly unwelcome in the public space unless they conform to Hamas’ conservative vision. Early marriages continue and honour killings regularly go unpunished.
And for ordinary civilians in Gaza – whether women, men or children – Hamas has absolutely failed to deliver on any programme of social reform or societal improvement. Yes, they are heavily constrained by the occupation. After all it was Israel who destroyed the Gaza power plant and would destroy it again at a moment’s notice. It was Israel who destroyed thousands of homes and business and sent Gaza ‘back to the stone age’. But as political rulers Hamas have not been capable of confronting this challenge.
When I visited Gaza at the tenth anniversary of the election of Hamas (in February 2016) I witnessed a society which had stood still. It remained almost completely as it was when I first went to live there in 2004. It was the land that time forgot. However, there were signs of conspicuous wealth among some sections of the population, some new restaurants for the wealthy and some new supermarkets and shopping malls.
But for most residents of Gaza who rely on the food aid which drips in through Qarni crossing these new places are unimaginably out of reach.
So, if we are to support the rights of Palestinian civilians we must make it clear that we, first, oppose the occupation in all its forms. We must be clear that Israel is the primary source of the undignified life led by Palestinians inside Gaza. Lift the occupation and the light will come in to Gaza. We should treat the occupation as if Hamas did not exist – international law places the primary responsibility for Gaza’s civilians on the occupying power.
But we must treat also Hamas as if the occupation did not exist. They too must meet international law standards. should also welcome any attempts to bring Hamas leaders to the International Criminal Court. And when we engage with Hamas we should do so on the basis of persuading them that the society they are building in Gaza must be rooted in human rights and the rule of law and that, ultimately, the most Islamic thing they can do is remember the exaltation of the Prophet Muhammad ‘la iqr’a fi alDin’. There is no compulsion in religion.