Life in Gaza under Hamas rule as Palestinians live in a climate of fear

The Gaza Strip, a 140-square-mile enclave bordering Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, is home to more than two million people – as well as Hamas, a political and military organisation that has been governing the densely populated territory since 2006.

The takeover of Hamas – a proscribed terror group in the UK which on October 7 launched an unprecedented assault on Israel, was completed in 2007 – after it won an internal war with Fatah, the secular Palestinian nationalist party.

As the group tightened its grip on the small territory, nominally under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority like the West Bank, it significantly changed the daily life, rights and freedoms of civilians living in the Palestinian territory, with many now living “in a climate of fear” and subjected to daily propaganda, according to a geopolitical analyst.

The population in Gaza, currently being targeted by a barrage of Israeli airstrikes, retaliating for Hamas’ terror attack on October 7, comprises an overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslims and a shrinking minority of Palestinian Christians.

Almost 60 percent of the residents in Gaza are aged under 25, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, making the Strip’s population among the world’s youngest.

Daily life in Gaza before the new war

Even prior to the conflict started by a terror attack carried out by Hamas against Israel, Gaza was largely relying on humanitarian aid.

The local economy has been severely hampered by closure policy blocks enforced at the Gaza border since 2007 by Israel and Egypt, and according to a CIA report, an estimated 30 percent of the total Gazan population was below the poverty line in 2011.

The blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt to isolate Hamas, attracted the criticism of a number of humanitarian organisations, which noted the move had resulted in restricted access to clean water, reliable electrical supply, health care, food and employment opportunities.

Prior to the new war, only two crossings allowed travel into and out of the Strip, with Palestinians banned from leaving Gaza through Israel, unless they were holding an Israeli-issued exit permit – normally limited to day labourers, businesspeople, medical patients and their companions as well as aid workers.

Leaving Gaza through the Rafah crossing point into Egypt required registration with the Palestinian authorities and an application sent to Egyptian authorities.

In the run-up to the new conflict, a little over 75 percent of the Gazan population were registered refugees, according to the United Nations, with many of them living in the eight, crowded refugee camps located across the Strip.

Since the beginning of the war, hundreds of thousands have been displaced due to airstrikes as well as Israel’s evacuation order affecting the area north of Wadi Gaza.

Rights and freedom under Hamas

In an analysis focused on the political and military events in the Palestinian territories in 2022, Amnesty International accused Palestinian authorities of “heavily restricting” freedom of expression, association and assembly, as well as holding in arbitrary detention and torturing “scores of people”.

Speaking about how life in Gaza changed over the past two decades, Irina Tsukerman, President of Scarab Rising, Inc. and fellow at both the Arabian Peninsula Institute and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told “Overall, law and order and freedoms have deteriorated significantly [since Hamas’ takeover], with the few remaining Christians in Gaza facing extreme level of persecutions, and Fatah members facing repressions.

“The flourishing of the political Islamic ideology has led to the suppression of any other perspectives; corruption and economic repressions have had a chilling effect on any public dissent.”

Ms Tsukerman called Hamas’ governing a “dictatorial hold” which is “absolutist in nature”, albeit the group collaborates at times with other terrorist organisations such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

She went on to claim: “Criticism of any aspect of Hamas rule is strictly forbidden and can result in severe reprisals, ranging from the destruction of personal property, to imprisonment, to beatings and torture.

“Torture against political and other prisoners is rampant; any rivals or political opposition faces frequent extrajudicial executions.”

The Independent Commission for Human Rights believes around 105 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were arbitrarily detained by Hamas in 2022 alone. The organisation also said to have received more than 160 reports of torture that same year.

Propaganda in Gaza

In 2021, the United Nations Watch issued a statement in which it accused Hamas of “routinely indoctrinating Palestinian children to aspire to martyrdom through armed confrontations with Israel”.

A few months later, Hamas’ armed wing Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades defended its Vanguard of Liberation camps, in which youngsters aged between 15 to 21 are taught security and military skills.

Citing the United Nations resolution 45/130 on the right of people to self-determination and struggle by all available means, a Hamas spokesman said: “What we are doing in these camps is, like all the peoples who are, and were, under occupation and persecution, where international law guarantees them the right to self-determination, self-defence, and resisting the occupier by all means available, including armed resistance under United Nations General Assembly resolution 45/130.”

Ms Tsukerman said about propaganda and indoctrination in Gaza: “The population lives in a climate of fear, but attacks on Israel and propaganda are a popular rallying point, and the scapegoating of Israel and the US often redirects public anger at the lawlessness and the reign of terror towards (an) external enemy.”

Support for Hamas

Hamas, which was formed in 1987 and has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, calls for the destruction of Israel and opposes a two-state solution which would see the creation of two countries for two communities – Jewish people and Palestinians.

Quantifying the true support Hamas – which uses as a commander centre a network of tunnels built also to get around the blockade – enjoys among Gazans is very difficult, Ms Tsukerman noted, due to the “climate of fear and lack of freedom”.

She said: “Overall, because it is a totalitarian state, the level of popular support does not matter much as there is no real chance to rise up against the leadership, any opposition would be extremely disorganised nor have an alternative structure for governance.”

Trying to gauge how Palestinians in Gaza see Hamas, the Arab Barometer, a non-partisan research network, conducted a survey on Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza between September 28 and October 8 – days before the new war erupted.

The analysis suggested the “vast majority of Gazans have been frustrated with the armed group’s ineffective governance as they endure extreme economic hardship”, as reported by Foreign Affairs, which published the findings.

The majority of survey respondents – a total of 790 West Bank residents and 399 Gazans – spoke in favour of a two-state solution with an independent Palestine and Israel existing side-by-side, in clear opposition to Hamas’ desire to destroy Tel Aviv.

Among the Gazan responders, 44 percent were said to have no trust at all in Hamas, while 23 percent were said not to have a lot of trust in the group. Only 29 percent of Gazans expressed either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in their government.

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