Several prominent critics of Hamas have departed the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, relocating abroad nearly one year since grassroots activists launched a popular movement to democratize Palestinian politics and re-unite the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
The failure of the so-called March 15 movement to end the division between Fatah and Hamas has wreaked havoc on freedom of speech and the press for residents of the occupied territories, who continue to be ruled by rival regimes. The news agency I work for, Maan, is no exception.
“Abu Yazan,” a well-known youth organizer and one of the leading activists behind the March 15 protests, says he fled to Egypt in mid-February after a sympathetic Hamas security officer leaked news of his impending arrest. His plight underscores the perils faced by Palestinians who dare to criticize Hamas these days.
Despite pledges of a new era of public freedoms after the heralded May 2011 reconciliation deal, acts of intimidation are increasing in Gaza and the West Bank as the rival authorities grapple with a crisis of legitimacy, finally out of excuses a year after the protests Abu Yazan helped lead. Along with others in the movement, he is observing its first anniversary abroad. Gaza today is too dangerous for these dissidents, he says: “I had to run away from Hamas. They wanted to put me in jail forever.”
Things took a turn for the worse last spring, when the government learned it was less in control than it had believed. As tens of thousands gathered in Gaza City, Hamas felt the wrath of a populace fed up with economic stagnation and hopelessness brought by the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Palestinian youths rallied for democracy and reconciliation, camping out in town squares and refusing to leave until Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas officially ended the division splitting the territories. The demonstrations in Gaza City were tellingly larger than those in Ramallah, a bubble of international aid projects whose more complacent populace has for years drawn the ire of more hardcore activists. While Abbas sent sandwiches to the demonstrators in Manara square (partly an affront to the hunger-strikers among them), Hamas’ security forces did the opposite. They came down hard—first on the protesters, and then against the media. In the biggest crackdown since taking power in 2007, forces raided news bureaus, beat up and jailed journalists and accused the non-Hamas press of inciting crowds to riot.
A year later, local and international advocates for the media agree that freedom of speech is on the decline in the occupied territories. Palestine dropped three places in Reporters Without Borders’ latest report, which considers Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to be cushier assignments. Israel is responsible for many abuses, these campaigners point out, but the Palestinian security forces are hardly innocent. Nowhere is this clearer than Gaza, where a new report from a vocal press freedom watchdog called Mada shows Palestinian security forces are committing more violations against journalists than even the Israeli army, a first since it began keeping records. “Recently the situation in Gaza is very dangerous,” says Riham Abu Aita, a researcher who helped compile the report. Figures for 2011 implicate Hamas authorities in the majority of violations committed by Palestinian security forces, she says.
Abu Aita’s group is non-partisan, but it is based in Ramallah and spends much of its time tracking the Fatah government’s elaborate security matrix in the West Bank. Violations by forces loyal to President Abbas are also commonplace; they routinely jail and harass reporters working for media outlets deemed sympathetic to Hamas, or too critical of Abbas. But after recounting some of Hamas’ recent actions, Abu Aita insists it’s simply no longer credible to equate the two factions’ treatment of journalists. “The violations in Gaza over the past year have been much worse than in the West Bank,” she told me. “Some of them are very serious.”
Mahmoud Abu Rahma, a Palestinian human rights activist and columnist based in Gaza, was the victim of one of the worst incidents recorded by Mada so far this year. The attack occurred after the publication of his latest article calling out the government as well as armed groups for placing civilians at risk of Israeli reprisal attacks. The article also accused the authorities of making arrests based on political affiliation, and failing to respect basic rights. "It is safe to assume that neither the government nor the resistance is willing to step in to protect people who dare to criticize them,” he wrote.
Shortly thereafter, Abu Rahma was accosted in his lobby by masked men who denounced him as a traitor and “disbeliever” while delivering their blows. Days later, armed with knives, the assailants overpowered him outside his Gaza City flat. Abu Rahma says he suffered stab wounds to his thigh and above his knee. They sliced down his back and shoulder before cutting off part of his hand. He escaped alive after blocking his chest with the same laptop that started all this trouble in the first place.
The government claims it is committed to protecting journalists and the broad freedom of speech and press guarantees in Palestine’s basic law. The police, meanwhile, swear they’re hot on the trail of the writer’s attackers. But statements by top leaders tell a different story. Hamas has turned to its official media to incite violence, lambasting Abu Rahma’s publisher, Maan, as a “Zionist propaganda” outfit whose agenda “impugns the resistance” and stirs discord, as official radio put it the week he was stabbed.
While it may disavow the stabbing and other incidents, Hamas cannot deny its contribution to the hateful climate surrounding these attacks. The message to vigilantes is clear: Make these detractors pay, and we won’t come after you. Indeed, the authorities have made no arrests, not for the stabbing or other serious incidents such as the two bombing attempts which targeted Maan’s newsroom in 2011.
The outlet, Palestine’s largest non-partisan TV network, has had a rough few months since becoming the target of a dangerous effort to intimidate its journalists. What began as a petty media campaign has morphed into physical violence; reporters are being threatened, offices set on fire and worse. The authorities have announced no leads nearly a year after staff discovered what appeared to be an improvised explosive device drilled into a wall inside its building. Nor has anyone been arrested for the firebomb attack that torched the same entryway last summer. When I asked my colleague Emad Abu Eid, the bureau chief in Gaza City, if we ought to be surprised by the lack of progress, he just laughed. There was never any need for an investigation, he told me. The latest attack had predictably followed a report which had angered the government more than usual, he recalled. “The next day, we found a big message waiting for us.”
Theories abound for why Hamas seems so sensitive to criticism lately, but it may reflect new financial and strategic challenges as the movement is at odds with its main source of revenue, Iran, after abandoning its chief strategic backer, the embattled Assad regime of Syria. But granted a new start as neighboring countries like Egypt open up to Islamist politics for the first time in decades, Hamas is also reaching out to a much less hostile region. The Arab Spring has been a mixed bag for the group, and its efforts to influence public opinion may also shed light on how the government plans to assert a newfound sense of purpose brought by a rise of allies abroad. Hamas officials believe it is only a matter of time before friendlier parties ascend to power across the region, some analysts say.
To many in Ismail Haniyeh’s government, nothing but glowing coverage of Hamas will ever be enough. They view Maan as suspiciously supportive of Salam Fayyad, the Western-backed premier in Ramallah, and ask themselves why this rogue news outlet is permitted to operate in Gaza in the first place. After all, their argument goes, Fatah doesn’t even allow pro-Hamas media to maintain offices in the areas it controls in the West Bank, much less report openly about the government here.
They have a point, and it underscores the danger to Palestinian journalists posed by this never-ending fracture, which all but legitimizes the looming threats intended to make editors think twice before taking positions on issues of substance, worried how an editorial or investigation might threaten the well-being of colleagues on the “wrong” side.
"The issue of freedom of the press and speech in Palestine is so important and should be taken more seriously," says Ebaa Rezeq, a blogger who was beaten during last year’s protests and arrested for supporting Egypt’s revolution. “It is extremely dangerous to write while in Gaza.”