10 Years After Gaza Takeover, Hamas Under Pressure To Surrender Power

17 hours ago
Originally published on July 17, 2017 11:30 pm

Ten years ago this summer, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas staged a coup, ousted members of the rival Fatah party and took over the Gaza Strip.

It felt it took what it deserved: Hamas had won the majority of seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, but Hamas and Fatah couldn't work out how to share power.

It led to gun battles. A 29-year-old man saw his cousin, a Fatah border guard in training, get shot in a fight with Hamas gunmen in one of the many battles that led to the coup. The man is afraid to be identified — even a decade later.

"The darkest 10 years of my life" is how he summarized his life since Hamas took over Gaza.

It's been a dark decade for most of Gaza's 2 million people. Egypt and Israel keep Gaza's borders nearly sealed, citing security concerns due to Hamas' attacks on Israelis and its refusal to renounce violence, so most people can't go in or out. Imports are restricted. Thousands have died in three Hamas wars with Israel.

Now the hardship is entering a new phase. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — the leader of Hamas' rival Fatah party and president of the Palestinian Authority government, who lost control of Gaza 10 years ago and rules only in the West Bank — has cut back on the money and provisions he has provided Gaza over these last 10 years, aid he'd provided in an attempt to assert leadership over Gaza.

The aim: to pressure Hamas to give him back the keys to the territory.

"We can't be expected to fund a coup against us," Ahmad Majdalani, a confidant of Abbas, told NPR in his West Bank office.

The Palestinian Authority has held up a shipment of medicines for Gaza. Robert Piper, the U.N. Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, says there is evidence this is in part a punitive measure by the Palestinian Authority to pressure Hamas.

At Gaza's main hospital, the medicine storage room is largely bare.

"It's very, very dangerous," said Shifa Hospital pharmacy director Nael Skaik, clutching a list of dozens of medicines that are out of stock. "You talk about very sensitive medications, not available in local market. Not available here." Among the unavailable drugs: antibiotic skin ointment and medicines to treat infants born with hypoglycemia and to counteract venomous snake bites.

The Palestinian Authority has also reduced salaries it pays some employees in Gaza, to put pressure on cash-strapped Hamas to provide them a livelihood. And it has stopped paying Israel to provide electricity for Gaza, even as it pays Israel to provide electricity for the West Bank.

Now Gaza has just a few hours of power a day. It affects nearly every aspect of life.

Sewage can't be treated, so it's dumped into the Mediterranean Sea — a chronic problem exacerbated by the power cuts. With summer temperatures soaring into the 90s, homes can't be cooled, but the sea is too polluted to bathe in and cool off. Tap water frequently cuts off. Refrigerators aren't reliable. Sometimes power comes on in the middle of the night, and people wake up to run their laundry machines.

Raed, a farmer who requested that his last name not be published, often sleeps in a shack in his field so he can irrigate his crops when electricity comes on in the middle of the night.

He's tired of paying taxes to Hamas, which is estimated to collect about $20 million a month from Gazans.

"Hamas is used to taking money, not giving any services. They are willing to take everything," he said. He then offered up a vulgar analogy.

"I hate Hamas from the bottom of the bottom of my heart," he continued. "From the river to the sea," he added, using a common reference to the borders of pre-1948 Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Gazans are openly angry at Hamas much more than in the past, and some have been punished for speaking out.

But they don't necessarily like the alternative. Fatah is even worse than Hamas, in the Gaza farmer's eyes.

"They're dirtier," he said.

And that's the thing: Abbas' government in the West Bank is making no friends in Gaza by slashing electricity. And if the aim is to pressure Hamas' senior leaders, they're not feeling the heat, said Gaza political science professor Mukhaimer Abu Sada.

"Many Hamas institutions and senior leaders have giant generators where they are able to solve the electricity problem," said Abu Sada. "Even air conditioning is on when these generators are on."

By cutting off money and electricity to Gaza, Abbas is cutting himself off from Gaza, Abu Sada said.

"After 10 years of the current political split, I believe the split might become permanent and go into final separation between Gaza and West Bank," Abu Sada said.

The stakes go beyond just Gaza.

President Trump wants to work with Abbas on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But it will be hard for Abbas to claim he represents all Palestinians with Gaza out of his hands.

A Hamas spokesman, Hazem Qasem, said the group needs to be included in the equation. Hamas is a resistance movement, Qasem said, and cannot be ignored.

Hamas is shunned by the international community and has lost significant financial support from many of its former Arab and Muslim backers. The question now: What will happen now that Hamas is being pushed into a corner?

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ten years ago this summer, the Palestinian militant group Hamas staged a coup and took over the Gaza Strip. Hamas has held de facto control of Gaza since then while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has ruled just in the West Bank. Well, now Abbas is taking unprecedented steps to get control back, but it's making life in Gaza even tougher. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: When Hamas took over Gaza, it felt it took what it deserved. It had won the majority of seats in Palestinian legislative elections. But Hamas and the rival Fatah party couldn't work out how to share power. It led to gun battles. I met a man who saw his cousin, a Fatah border guard, killed by Hamas gunmen. Ten years have passed, but he's still afraid to let me identify him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) The darkest 10 years in my life.

ESTRIN: It's been a dark 10 years for most Gazans. Thousands died in three Hamas wars with Israel. Egypt and Israel keep Gaza's borders nearly sealed, citing security concerns. So most people can't go in or out, and imports are restricted. Now the hardship is entering a new phase. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is cutting back the aid he's been providing Gaza. The aim - to pressure Hamas to give him back the keys.

I visited Gaza's main hospital and walked into the medicine storage room. It was largely bare. The Palestinian Authority has slashed health care aid and has even caused delays for Gazans seeking hospital treatment in Israel and the West Bank. The hospital pharmacy director, Nael Skaik, showed me a list of dozens of medicines out-of-stock.

NAEL SKAIK: It's very, very dangerous. You talk about very sensitive medications not available local market. It's not available here.

ESTRIN: The Palestinian Authority has also reduced salaries it pays some employees in Gaza, and it has stopped paying Israel to provide electricity for Gaza, which now has just a few hours of power a day. Little power means sewage can't be treated, and tap water frequently cuts off.

RAED: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: This farmer, who asked us just to use his first name, Raed, often sleeps in a shack in the middle of his field so he can irrigate his crops when electricity comes on in the middle of the night. He's tired of paying taxes to Hamas.

RAED: (Through interpreter) Hamas is just taking money, not giving any services. They are willing to take everything.

ESTRIN: He slips into profanities I can't repeat on the radio.

You don't like Hamas very much, do you?

RAED: (Through interpreter) I hate Hamas from the bottom of my heart, from the river to the sea.

ESTRIN: Gazans are openly angry at Hamas much more than the past, and some have been punished for speaking out. I posed a follow-up question to the farmer.

Do you like Fatah better?

RAED: No. (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: "Fatah is worse," he says. And that's the thing. Abbas' government in the West Bank is not making any friends in Gaza by reducing electricity, and senior Hamas leaders are not feeling the heat because they use generators, says Gaza political science professor Mukhaimer Abu Saada.

MUKHAIMER ABU SAADA: Even air conditioning is on when these generators are on.

ESTRIN: He says by cutting off money and electricity to Gaza, Abbas is cutting himself off from Gaza.

ABU SAADA: After 10 years of the current political split, I believe the split might become permanent and go into final separation between West Bank and Gaza.

ESTRIN: The stakes go beyond just Gaza. President Trump wants to work with Abbas on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But it will be hard for Abbas to claim he represents the Palestinians with Gaza out of his hands. Hamas spokesman Hazem Qasem says the group needs to be in the equation.

HAZEM QASEM: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said, "Hamas is a resistance movement and cannot be ignored." Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.