What's life like under Hamas? 'Whispered in Gaza' offers unique, courageous testimony.
By Center For Peace Communications and Times of Israel 16 January 2023
In an unprecedented series of animated videos, drawn from interviews carried out by the NY-based Center for Peace Communications, ordinary Gazans tell heartwrenching stories.
Image from the Center for Peace Communications’ ‘Whispered in Gaza’ series of animated interviews with Gazans (Courtesy)
This article, the first in a series of three, presents eight short, animated interviews with residents of the Gaza Strip.
Produced by the Center for Peace Communications, a New York nonprofit, they are being published by The Times of Israel because they represent a rare opportunity for ordinary, courageous Gazans to tell the world what life is like under the rule of Hamas.
The Times of Israel’s French site is carrying a French edition of the clips. An Arabic-language edition is being presented on alarabiya.net, a Persian edition via the newspaper Kayhan, a Spanish edition on Infobae, and a Portuguese edition on RecordTV.
The short clips — none of them longer than two and a half minutes — offer poignant insights into day-to-day life in the Strip, an area that most outsiders cannot reach and whose residents directly suffer from the consequent lack of understanding.
We meet ordinary people telling authentic stories about common problems that are drastically exacerbated by Hamas’s control, ordinary people with expectations and aspirations and dreams — from running a pharmacy to working as a journalist to simply dancing — that they are forbidden from realizing.
All names have been changed, and CPC employed animation and voice-altering technology to protect speakers’ identity.
The participants consented to be interviewed for the sake of relaying their ideas and experiences to an international audience, noted CPC president Joseph Braude, adding, “They want these stories to be heard.”
You can watch the entire first week’s playlist of eight videos here:
Or watch the clips one by one below, alongside context and sources about the widespread phenomena they portray:
“Don’t Tell Me How to Resist”
Everywhere Iyad turns in Gaza, he finds Hamas’s leaders looking back at him. Their portraits and slogans cover the walls and alleys. “Is this a city or a military barracks?” he asks. When his fellow Gazans declare themselves “ready for martyrdom,” he hears only despair. “OK, Palestine is our cause, and it is a just one,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean you should keep getting Palestinians killed, again and again, without any result.”
While open criticism of Hamas’s war footing remains rare, a closer look shows a population questioning the wisdom of perpetual conflict. Last August, on a rare occasion when Hamas refrained from firing rockets into Israel during a period of escalation, 68 percent of Gazans supported the decision. Gazan mother Halima Jundiya, noting the trauma her children still endure from the 2014 conflict, told The New York Times, “We don’t want Hamas to fire rockets. We don’t want another war.” Another 2022 poll found that 53 percent of Gazans agree at least somewhat that “Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction, and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.”
Indications of Gazan discomfort with Hamas ideology and policies, which have been growing, are likely understated, given the recent finding that 62 percent of Gazans believe “people in the Strip cannot criticize Hamas’s authority without fear.” One dissenter, speaking with +972 Magazine on the condition of anonymity, said, “We’ve been through four horrific wars and accomplished nothing.”
“My Brother is Gone”
Fatima’s brother used to work as a street vendor, selling vegetables his mother grew. But Hamas police in Gaza would confiscate his wares, demanding bribes to let him work and threatening him with jail, beatings, and worse.
Under Hamas rule, the line between taxation and racketeering is a blurred one. According to Palestinian polling, 73 percent of Palestinians believe Hamas institutions are corrupt. In 2019, after Hamas imposed a series of new taxes, approximately 1,000 Gazans waged street demonstrations under the banner “We Want to Live.” One protester observed, “Dozens of Hamas officials have grown their wealth through financial corruption” while “draining our people by imposing more taxes [and] ignoring [our] poverty.” In 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department targeted Hamas finance official and a network of Hamas-affiliated individuals and companies for having funneled over $500 million into a secret investment portfolio, noting that Hamas “has generated vast sums of revenue… while destabilizing Gaza, which is facing harsh living and economic conditions.”
The kind of extortion Fatima describes has driven many Gazans, including her brother, to flee the Strip. A 2018 poll found that 48 percent of Gazans want to emigrate. The journey is a dangerous one, leaving would-be migrants vulnerable to further exploitation by black market smugglers. One mother recounted how her escape to Belgium with a daughter who has autism cost $11,000 in bribes. Others perish in the attempt. In 2014, nearly 400 Gazans drowned after smugglers rammed their boat as it attempted to flee to Europe. As one young man put it, “there isn’t anyone [here] who doesn’t know someone who’s migrated to Turkey to sell his organs to help his parents… Hamas glorifies itself as the resistance to the occupation, but they sit in their palaces with their Qatari passports while we pay the price.”
“With Stones … Again”
When Hamas police came to cut off power to Ahmed’s home, his cousin, a child with Down syndrome, tried to stop them. They beat him and fired live ammunition at his house. After Ahmed uploaded footage of the incident to social media, the clip went viral. He spent the next three days on the run from Hamas authorities.
Hamas routinely deploys coercive tactics in an effort to silence critics. According to Palestinian polling from 2022, 62 percent of Palestinians believe “people in the Strip cannot criticize Hamas authorities without fear.” This fear is justified: a 2017 Human Rights Watch investigation concluded that “[s]ince it seized control of Gaza in June 2007… [Hamas] authorities have harassed critics and abused those in its custody.” The report noted that after one Gazan journalist asked Hamas leaders on Facebook, “Do your children sleep on the floor like ours do?” he was arrested, charged with “misuse of technology,” and instructed by Hamas officers that “it’s forbidden to write against Hamas; we will shoot you.”
“Bring Back the Dabke”
Mariam, a professional dancer of dabke, an Arabic folk style, believes in the power of art to improve the world. But after Hamas gained control of Gaza in 2007, they told her to stop dancing and study Quran instead. When she refused, they began to threaten her family.
Mariam is not alone. Since taking power, Hamas has reportedly clamped down on women’s basic freedoms and artistic expressions deemed un-Islamic. In July 2022, Hamas banned street concerts. “[Hamas has] imposed unjust measures,” one musician told Al-Monitor, “as it deemed art and music to be against Islamic law.” In 2021, Hamas ruled that women require the permission of a male guardian to travel. In 2018, Hamas blocked the launch of a women’s television channel and banned the opening of a ballet school for girls. In 2017, it banned dog walking “to protect women and children.” In 2013, a marathon organized by the United Nations was canceled after a Hamas decision to ban women from competing.
The organization shows no sign of changing course.
Billions in foreign aid have poured into Gaza. But as far as Isma’il is concerned, the sea might as well have swallowed it. “Gaza is like the Bermuda Triangle,” he says. “Everything that enters, vanishes.”
In 2014-2020, UN agencies sent nearly $4.5 billion in aid to Gaza, and Qatar has provided an additional $1.3 billion since 2012. Yet the population lives at a subsistence level.
Hamas alleges that it does not “touch a single cent” of international aid, despite the active role it plays in its distribution. Most of the population is skeptical, however. A recent survey found that 73 percent of Gazans believe Hamas-run institutions are corrupt. On occasion, Hamas has been caught in outright theft. In 2009, the UN was briefly forced to halt aid shipments after Hamas gunmen stole several hundred tons of flour, blankets, and other aid. An UNRWA spokesman told the New York Times, “They were armed and we were not.”
“There’s No Making Peace With Them”
Basma, a licensed pharmacist in Gaza, was repeatedly harassed by Hamas over her affiliation with the rival Fatah group. After she opened her own pharmacy, Hamas priced her out of the market, forcing her to shut it down.
Hamas rule in Gaza, which began in 2007 after a lethal battle against Fatah and PA officers, has been marked by a combination of violent and nonviolent tactics aimed at eliminating all political opposition. In the years following the Hamas takeover, PA officials accused Hamas of “turning its rifles in the direction of Fatah members,” and local rights groups have documented continual abuse and periodic killings. In 2014, Amnesty International’s report “Strangling Necks: Abductions, Torture, and Summary Killings of Palestinians by Hamas Forces During the 2014 Gaza/Israel Conflict” documented “serious abuses against Fatah members and former members of the PA security forces in Gaza, including abductions, torture, shootings, and other assaults.”
Less lurid, but more ubiquitous in daily life, are the various means by which Hamas has created a patronage network that bestows benefit on its members while shutting out other Palestinians. Tens of thousands have been hired and promoted in the civil service based on loyalty to the movement, while many others have been granted profitable stakes in Hamas-owned businesses. Meanwhile, doctors and other medical professionals have been summarily dismissed for retaining ties to Fatah. Indeed, despite the Strip’s chronic healthcare crisis, whole clinics have been forced to shut down for the same reason.
“A Policy of Muzzling”
Maha once aspired to be a journalist in her native Gaza, but no longer tries. First her Facebook page was taken down. Then Hamas told her, “If you don’t stop, something bad might happen to your family.”
Hamas maintains strict control over media based in Gaza. Freedom House gives the coastal Strip a score of 0/4 for “free and independent media,” noting “a pattern of arrests, interrogations, and in some cases beatings and torture of journalists in Gaza.”
Hamas often silences journalists by targeting their families. In October 2022, one Gazan media activist posted a video of such a threat after a Hamas enforcer threatened his parents. A few weeks later, according to the International Federation of Journalists, another reporter was arrested by Hamas after he exposed its involvement in an operation smuggling Gazans into Europe. Interrogated by the Hamas security apparatus, he was told he had “stepped into forbidden territory.” The IFJ report adds that security officers subsequently broke into his home and threatened his family.
“Where’s the Victory?”
“Back in the days of the first and second intifadas, we used to believe in something called resistance,” says Othman. “But today, the ‘resistance’ has become a business.” Every tobacco stand and coffee shop is forced to pay Hamas protection money, he says, and when war breaks out, “[Hamas] sit in their bunkers while we have to bear the brunt. And at the end they tell us it’s a victory.”
From its inception, Hamas has cultivated an image of incorruptibility. In 2006, its candidates ran successfully in Palestinian elections in Gaza under the motto “Reform and Change.” They promised “a new breed of Islamic leadership” that was “ready to put into practice faith-based principles in a setting of tolerance and unity,” and “pledged transparency in government.”
Instead, Hamas proceeded to build an economy based on patronage and political favoritism, exacting a heavy toll on essential services including healthcare and education. It then exploited Gaza’s isolation under closure to build and institutionalize a network of smuggling which it exclusively controlled. According to a report by The International Crisis Group, five years after taking power, Hamas’s network of smuggling tunnels was transferring half a billion dollars in goods annually, and exacting “import duties” in excess of 14.5 percent. As one smuggler put it, the choice is to pay Hamas “or get shot in the legs.” Meanwhile, despite Gazans’ impoverishment, Hamas imposes a range of taxes to fund an opaque budget, even the purpose of which is secret. The AP reported that Hamas “offers few services in exchange [for these taxes], and most aid and relief projects are covered by the international community.”
Unsurprisingly, Palestinian opinion polling found that 73 percent of Gazans believe Hamas-run institutions are corrupt.
When Hamas wages war, ordinary Gazans pay an even steeper price. As one young Gazan told the Financial Times, “When the Israelis came, Hamas went and hid in the tunnels, and left us outside.” A participant in the 2019 “We Want to Live” protest movement told +972 magazine, “None of us young people actually voted for Hamas… [it] glorifies itself as the resistance to the occupation, but they sit in their palaces with their Qatari passports while we pay the price.”
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