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.
Political analyst Dr. Mkhaimar Abusala, a political science professor at Gaza City's Al-Azhar University, believes that the flotilla tragedy has empowered Hamas to become more oppressive than usual.
“Even if their popularity has not improved in Gaza, they are being portrayed in the Arab and Muslim world as the vanguard of Palestinian resistance,” he said. “Hamas is using this sentiment to crack down on its opponents.”
The largest of the non-profits targeted last week by Hamas was the Sharek Youth Forum, which organizes social services and leadership activities for young people. Sharek’s office in the southern city of Rafah was raided, locked and guarded by armed men, while its Gaza City office was raided but allowed to remain open. The agents claimed to represent the Hamas Interior Ministry but came with no official papers or court orders.
Moheeb Shaath, executive director of Sharek, suspects that Hamas’ raid on his organization may be connected to recent threats against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) summer games, in which 250,000 Gazan children participate. Sharek helps select staff and coordinates the games' beachfront activities, including: swimming, aquatic games, sand castle competitions and art activities.
Nine days before Israel's May 31 flotilla raid in which nine Turks were killed aboard ships seeking to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, an unknown group called Freedom of the Homeland distributed leaflets deriding UNRWA for "teaching schoolgirls fitness, dancing and immorality."
One sentence of the leaflet specifically mentioned Sharek. It read: “For your information, the supervision of the beach location of the UNRWA camps will be Sharek Youth Forum, which is well known to be corrupt and morally spoiled.”
The following day, on May 23, about 20 masked gunmen torched tents, vandalized bathrooms, and tied up the security guard at an UNRWA beachfront facility. They then stuffed the guard’s pocket with bullets and a note threatening to kill top UNRWA leaders unless they cancelled the summer games.
After the arson attack, another unknown group called Refugee Rights posted leaflets claiming that the UNRWA Summer Games cost $20 million dollars, teach impudent practices to Palestinian girls, and waste money that should belong to the Palestinian people.
Hamas police forbade NGOs, including Sharek, from organizing a protest against the attacks on UNRWA, citing security concerns. Recently, the Hamas Interior Ministry — the same ministry whose agents raided Sharek and other NGOs — announced arrests in connection to the UNRWA attack, though it has still not released any names.
Hope remains that Hamas will eventually return the NGOs' seized laptops and equipment and allow them to reopen. On Sunday, Hamas officials permitted Sharek’s office in the southern city of Rafah to reopen, but Hamas still has not returned equipment or provided an explanation for the raids.
The UNRWA summer camps are slated to proceed despite the threats, and all activities will be gender-segregated, Shaath said. In previous summers, some of the camps' workshops and discussions served mixed gender groups, but boys and girls have always been separated for the Sharek-led beachfront activities.
Displayed on the desk of Sharek executive director Moheeb Shaath is an appreciation plaque from the Islamic block, the youth wing of Hamas. Also on his desk is a letter from the Progressive Student Front inviting Sharek to attend an upcoming event.
“As you can see, we work with all political groups,” Shaath said. “We are not affiliated with any faction and actually we are harassed in [the West Bank] as well.”