In war-battered Gaza, residents grow angry with Hamas

JERUSALEM — More than six months into the war in Gaza and with dimming hopes for a cease-fire deal, Palestinians there are growing more critical of Hamas, which some of them blame for the months-long conflict that has destroyed the territory — and their lives.

The war has displaced most of the Gaza Strip’s population, killed tens of thousands of people and pushed the enclave toward famine, its infrastructure in ruins. The Israeli military waged a punishing campaign to eliminate Hamas after the group, which ruled Gaza for 17 years, attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people and abducting more than 250.

But while the majority of Palestinians in Gaza blame Israel for their suffering, according to polling conducted in March, they also appear to be turning their ire toward the militants. In interviews with more than a dozen residents of Gaza, people said they resent Hamas for the attacks in Israel and — war-weary and desperate to fulfill their basic needs — just want to see peace as soon as possible.

If Hamas wanted to start a war, “they should have secured people first — secured a place of refuge for them, not thrown them into suffering that no one can bear,” said Salma El-Qadomi, 33, a freelance journalist who has been displaced 11 times since the conflict started.

Palestinians want leaders “who won’t drag people into a war like this,” she said. “Almost everyone around me shares the same thoughts: We want this waterfall of blood to stop. Seventeen years of destruction and wars are enough.”

Hamas, an Islamist political and military movement, was founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising. It staged some of the deadliest attacks on Israeli civilians and later won Palestinian legislative elections, beating out the secular Fatah party that leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

The rival parties entered into a deadly power struggle, fighting a brief but bloody battle in Gaza in 2007, when Hamas seized control. For years after that, the group fought sporadic wars with Israel, but it also presided over periods of calm.

It used the smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt to manage the territory’s besieged economy and cracked down on criminal gangs that preyed on locals. More recently, however, Hamas’s fortunes turned. The tunnel trade had dried up after Egypt sealed off the network, and the group’s isolation deepened as some Arab states began normalizing relations with Israel.

Still, many observers, including Israel’s leaders, were sure Hamas wanted to stay in power and had little interest in a major conflict. The attack in October took many Palestinians — and much of the world — by surprise.

Hamas has said it launched the assault in part to avenge what it claimed was Israel’s “desecration” of the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest site, known to Jews — who also consider it sacred — as the Temple Mount.

The attack, a terrifying rampage through southern Israeli communities, initially boosted the group’s support in both Gaza and the West Bank, according the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which carried out polling in late November and early December.

Even recently, in a poll conducted over five days in March, a majority of respondents in both places say Hamas’s decision to carry out the attack was “correct.”

But, the center’s researchers said, “it is clear from the findings … that support for the offensive does not mean support for Hamas.” Instead, the results show three-quarters of Palestinians believe the attack refocused global attention on the conflict “after years of neglect.”

The anger mounting now in the enclave appears centered on stalled cease-fire talks, with Hamas insisting on a permanent truce and Israel’s full withdrawal from Gaza before it hands over any hostages.

“We can’t live like this anymore,” said a 29-year-old displaced lawyer and mother of three, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Hours before the interview, she said, Israeli drones fired at her and her children on the street in central Gaza.

“We need to be able to mourn what has happened to us, to bury those who were killed and look for those lost,” she said. “By any means, we want the war to stop, whatever it takes.”

Fedaa Zayed, a 35-year-old writer from northern Gaza, said she thinks Hamas is avoiding a cease-fire agreement because it doesn’t want to admit defeat. She fled her Gaza City apartment on the second day of the war and is now staying in Rafah on the border with Egypt.

“In reality, we are in full retreat, the domestic front is destroyed,” Zayed said. “We, as a people, want a cease-fire, the withdrawal of the Israeli army. We want to return to our homes even if they are in rubble.”

Hamas says it understands the frustrations of those who are suffering in Gaza. “But these complaints do not reflect the political situation,” said Basem Naim, a senior Hamas official.

Instead, he said, “we are listening to thousands of voices that are emphasizing that despite the sacrifice, they refuse to let go of the big goals that involve ending the occupation, freeing Jerusalem and setting up a Palestinian state.”

Naim and other senior political leaders, including Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, are based outside Gaza. Inside the enclave, Hamas leader Yehiya Sinwar, the apparent mastermind of Oct. 7, is believed to be hunkered down in a tunnel to escape the Israeli strikes.

Hamas, however, has never really tolerated dissent, and it arrested, jailed and beat activists who spoke out against its rule.

The group’s administration in Gaza was “full of corruption, nepotism, and bias in favor of the movement,” said Mohamed, 35, a graphic designer from Rafah. He spoke on the condition that only his first name be used out of fear of reprisal by the group’s fighters.

Also in Rafah, Ayman, 46, said he voted for Hamas in 2006 because he thought the Palestinian Authority was corrupt. But what came next, he said, also speaking on the condition that only his first name be used, “was a number of wars, the destruction of homes, the martyrdom of thousands, difficulty in life, and the siege.”

Earlier this year, demonstrations calling for a cease-fire broke out in at least two cities in Gaza. In a video of a protest in January, a crowd of mostly men and boys marches down a street in the city of Khan Younis, holding antiwar signs and chanting: “The people want an end to the war!”

Analysts say they have also seen an uptick in social media posts critical of Hamas.

“Hamas… don’t be upset with us and try to understand us correctly,” Rami Haroon, a 45-year-old dentist and father of five, wrote on Facebook on April 20.

“We have been suffocated by you for a long time,” wrote Haroon, who said he is not affiliated with any political party. “Your ship will sink and you will drown us with you.”

But while resentment is brewing, many Palestinians “feel it’s a shame to go after Hamas during this Israeli assault,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, associate professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza, who is now based in Cairo. “They don’t want to be seen as collaborators with the occupation if they protest against Hamas now.”

In the March poll from the policy center, a slim majority of respondents in Gaza said they would prefer Hamas — rather than the Palestinian Authority — to control the Strip after the war. The other options included the United Nations, the Israeli military, or one or more Arab countries.

“Given the magnitude of the suffering in the Gaza Strip, this seems to be the most counter intuitive finding of the entire poll,” the researchers wrote. At the same time, the results were consistent with the increase in the percentage of Palestinians in Gaza who think Hamas will win the war and stay in power.

“There are many ways to understand that,” Palestinian political analyst Khalil Sayegh, who is based in Washington, said of the finding in an interview last week. “One of which is that the people understood and saw that Hamas is staying, and thus they’re afraid to express their opinions.”

According to Abusada, people “care about Palestine and resistance and freedom and independence. But first of all, they want to live as humans, to be able to eat and sleep.”

“That’s why the criticism is much more vocal now and much more public now,” he said. “Israel really sent us to the Stone Age.”

Mahfouz and Balousha reported from Cairo, and Harb from London. Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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