Hamas has failed in its attempts to silence media coverage of the protests in Gaza against the rising cost of living. Despite its efforts, these demonstrations continue. They are led by an independent youth movement called “We Want to Live!” [bidna naish, in Arabic], which receives widespread public support and backing from PLO factions.

By the end of last week, Hamas security forces had carried out dozens of arrests throughout the Gaza Strip, detaining demonstrators who took part in the protests of the “We Want to Live” movement. Several journalists covering the demonstrations were also arrested.

The demonstrations began on March 14 in protest against the rising cost of living in the Gaza Strip. But Gazan residents were directing their anger towards the Hamas regime. Hamas security forces dispersed the demonstrators with gunfire and clubs, especially in the central demonstrations in the Jabalya refugee camp and Deir al-Balah.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported on March 16 that the demonstrations against the cost of living took place in the Jabalya, Al-Bureij and Nuseirat refugee camps, and the cities of Khan Yunis and Rafah, and that these protests were forcibly dispersed by Hamas security forces.

The director of the Center for Human Rights, Jamil Sarhan, and another lawyer named Bahar al-Turkhamani were beaten by Hamas police.

The anger of the residents of the Gaza Strip is increasing due to the difficult economic situation, taxes, which Hamas has imposed, as well as rising unemployment. Hamas is also suffering from severe financial distress, as the first anniversary of the “March of Return” approaches on March 30, 2019.

Many in the Gaza Strip saw the first year of the Hamas-initiated march as a failure because the campaign failed to break the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip as Hamas promised, despite more than 100 fatalities and the thousands of casualties.

The background to the current wave of protest

According to sources in the Gaza Strip, the “We Want to Live” movement is an independent youth movement that has no ties to any political body, and was established against the background of the increase in taxes imposed by Hamas on the population and on the unemployment rate among the younger generation, which stands at 69 percent.

Gazans say that Hamas is increasing taxes to build up the organization’s revenues. Those who are suffering the most are the residents who are not affiliated with the organization and do not receive services from Hamas institutions.

According to residents’ testimonies, Hamas imposed taxes on medical treatment in hospitals and on surgeries, even on those people who already paid for medical insurance. The taxes on vehicle licensing were also raised, and a tax of NIS 200 ($55) was imposed on all goods weighing more than a ton.

Hamas also increased the tax on goods smuggled from Egypt into the Gaza Strip through the tunnels. A pack of “Royal” cigarettes, which were sold for 4 NIS (a little more than $1) now cost between NIS 26 and NIS 30 (between $7 and $8).

The PLO factions support the effort

Representatives of all the Palestinian factions met on March 16 in the offices of the Popular Front in Gaza Strip to discuss the latest developments and the violent clampdown on the demonstrations. Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations boycotted the meeting.

At the end of the meeting, the participants issued a statement in support of the youth movement holding the demonstrations.

The following decisions were announced:

  • Opposition to all forms of suppression of the protests and against any violations of the human rights of demonstrators.
  • Calls upon Hamas to punish anyone who attacked the demonstrators and issue an apology to them, and to withdraw all its security personnel from the streets.
  • Support for the just demands of the demonstrators.
  • Calls upon Hamas to stop all types of taxes on goods and to introduce price controls.
  • Calls upon Egypt to renew the reconciliation process.

Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan, who has good relations with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, called on the Hamas leadership to stop all forms of oppression and the use of force against the “cost of living” demonstrators. He also called on Egypt to intervene and secure a Palestinian national agreement.

These developments are in accordance with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and its head, who is encouraging these protests. Two years ago, on the advice of Palestinian Intelligence Chief Majed Faraj, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas decided to impose sanctions on the Gaza Strip and worsen the situation there to make the economic situation so dire that Gazan residents would rebel against Hamas.

Senior Fatah official Hussein a-Sheikh said at the end of the week that the Palestinian leadership is in contact with influential Muslim countries to pressure the Hamas movement into stopping the oppressive tactics used against innocent civilians demanding a dignified lifestyle and the abolition of illegal taxes. Palestinian Authority sources reported that Abbas appealed to Egypt and Qatar to exert influence on Hamas to stop suppressing the demonstrators.

Fatah spokesman Osama al-Qawasmeh appeared on official Palestinian television and called on demonstrators to continue their demonstrations: “Our message is to our heroes who are fighting Hamas militias in the Gaza Strip, because the road to Jerusalem begins with a revolution against tyranny. We in the Fatah movement stand with you, and we will always be loyal to you.”

In the Gaza Strip, there is already talk that the “Arab Spring” has reached the Gaza Strip, and that Hamas attempts to divert internal and international attention from the demonstrations by firing two M-75 Fajr rockets at Tel Aviv had failed.

The phenomenon of the “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia in 2011, after a vegetable vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the city of Sidi Said. Now, Gazans are following Bouazizi’s example in Gaza.

Gaza resident Ahmed Abu Tahn, 32, set himself on fire on March 16 to protest the rising cost of living after being expelled from his home when he could not afford the rent.

The violent repression and arrests of demonstrators by Hamas members are considered a “black stain” on the organization, which is losing its popularity in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s bombing of Hamas targets won Hamas no fans

The protests against Hamas began again at the end of the week, even after the bombing of Hamas targets by the Israeli Air Force. According to sources in the Gaza Strip, these protests are supposed to continue, in light of the wave of arrests of demonstrators carried out by Hamas and the public support received by the demonstrators from Palestinian factions affiliated with the PLO.

At the same time, Hamas began to withdraw its supporters from demonstration areas of the “We Want to Live!” movement, so that Gazans would protest against the Palestinian Authority and hold the P.A.’s leaders to blame for the difficult economic situation.

Of course, Israel will soon again be blamed for the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

Attorney Fahmi Shabaneh, a former senior Palestinian intelligence official in the West Bank, told Hamas paper Al-Risala on March 16 that the P.A. security forces were encouraging instability in the Gaza Strip, were paying money to transport people to demonstrations, and were taking advantage of the difficult economic situation. “Once an agreement is reached between Israel and Hamas, everything will end,” says Shabaneh.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.