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Hamas takes the low road

Palestinian leaders are accused of squandering the public sentiment brought about by Israel's harsh tactics.

Hamas press conference Gaza
Hamas officials hold a seaside press conference condemning Israel on May 31, 2010, as their own agents raid the offices of NGOs across Gaza. (Ashley Bates/GlobalPost)

GAZA CITY, Gaza — As Hamas leaders took to a makeshift stage last Monday, blasting Israel's deadly flotilla raids as "state terrorism," few at the seaside press conference were aware that Hamas agents were raiding the offices of nongovernmental organizations across Gaza.

The agents seized files, technical equipment and laptop computers, and interrogated staff members. By the end of the day on Tuesday, the offices of six charities — including the Sharek Youth Forum, the Women and Children Society and the National Reconciliation Committee — had been shut down indefinitely.

“We find it very strange that the government would take these measures when Gazans and the world are concerned with what happened on the Freedom Flotilla,” said Mahmoud Abu Rahma, communications coordinator at the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights. “The measures themselves are illegal. By Palestinian law, [the government] can only interfere with NGOs based on a court ruling.”

Aid workers are asking why Gaza’s de facto government would make such a controversial move at a time when international outrage is directed against Israel and pro-Palestinian sentiment is high.

Hamas has yet to comment publicly on the matter, but Hamas advisor Ahmed Yousef, who is regarded as a moderate within an Islamic resistance movement that has steadfastly refused Western demands that it renounce violence and recognize Israel, criticized the raids.

During an interview with GlobalPost at a press conference following Israel's interception of another Gaza-bound ship called the MV Rachel Corrie, Yousef said Hamas' actions were in response to previous raids, closures and investigations that Fatah had taken against Hamas-affiliated organizations in the West Bank. Fatah is a more moderate party that Hamas defeated in the 2006 parliamentary election and that lost control of Gaza following a bloody 2007 civil war between Fatah and Hamas.

“I believe we shouldn’t be doing these sorts of things, but it’s like a policy of tit-for-tat,” Yousef said. “I hope the flotilla massacre will help [Hamas and Fatah] to bridge the rift and work hand in hand.”

Human rights workers and analysts told GlobalPost that the Hamas raids following the flotilla tragedy are an extension of a long-standing Hamas policy of clamping down on real or perceived rivals. This crackdown has tightened in recent months amid Gazans' rising anger at the Hamas government.

Many Gazans are furious about taxes recently imposed by Hamas on items including cigarettes and gas, as well as license fees imposed on small businesses such as falafel stands. Some also blame Hamas for obstructing efforts to end the political divide between the West Bank and Gaza, so as to achieve Palestinian unity and hold new elections. Still others who lost their homes in last year’s war blame the Israeli blockade for their inability to rebuild — but they also blame Hamas for not stepping in to fund reconstruction projects with materials smuggled from Egypt and scavenged from Gaza's abundant destroyed buildings.

Gazans from more secular backgrounds, meantime, fault Hamas for forcing traditional Islamic practices upon them. Hamas police have shut down music concerts and interrogated suspected couples. Principals at government schools have reportedly pressured even Christian girls to wear the Islamic scarf. Most of these incidents happen outside of the more well-to-do neighborhoods of Gaza City, where liberal citizens are rarely harassed.

Primarily for these reasons, Hamas was already becoming increasingly unpopular in Gaza long before the flotilla tragedy. A poll released last month by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre found that more than 40 percent of Gazans would vote for Fatah in an election, compared with just 16 percent for Hamas.