Criticism and Protest against the Leadership of Hamas as Seen on Social Media

Michael Barak discusses the protest movement in the Gaza strip that moved from social networks into the street.

In April 2014, Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement. After years of tension between the two parties, the agreement stirred hope in the people of Palestine, and particularly those in the Gaza Strip, that the reality of their situation would improve. However, the scope of their expectations was matched only by the dimensions of their disappointment. The continuation of the traditional suspicion between the leadership of the two movements, which increased following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens last June; the wave of arrests of political activists; and the entrenchment of both sides in their positions did not lead to any truly productive movement towards reconciliation. A substantive expression of people’s displeasure with the paralysis of the situation and the inability of the Hamas and Fatah leadership to reconcile their differences was apparent on Palestinian social media in late April 2015.

A group of young people from the Gaza Strip, who are not identified with either side, organized under the name “April 29,” and decided to use social networks to catapult the issue to the top of the agenda. Their goal was to make it clear to Fatah and Hamas that they must reach a true reconciliation and devote their full energies to rebuilding and improving the life of residents of the Gaza Strip. Members of the movement called on Gaza residents to gather for a demonstration in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood in eastern part of the city (see picture above). The demonstration called for ending divisions, reducing the overwhelming unemployment, respecting civil rights and freedoms, and advancing elections for the presidency, Palestinian legislature, and municipalities.[1] For this purpose, they created hashtags and Facebook pages where they displayed slogans encouraging support for their initiative. One organizer of the protest tweeted: “Do you oppose the solidarity tax (a progressive tax that Hamas imposed on merchandise imported into the Gaza Strip)? Do you oppose division and [the problem of] the checkpoints? Do you want electricity? A salary? Your rights? Then come tomorrow and make your voice heard!” Another young person noted: “April 29 does not identify with anyone and does not work against anyone but rather speaks in the name of the people. It is demanding change that will lead to a reality better than the present one.”[2]

The discourse that surrounded the April 29 initiative involved several hundred participants, primarily from the Gaza Strip but also from the West Bank. Most of the participants responded favorably to the initiative. One user noted, for example, that Gaza is facing serious problems which require intensive treatment in order to root out the increasingly rampant crime in the Gaza Strip, caused by the city’s poor economic and political situation (evident from the violent altercations between different factions). They demanded immediate intervention: “Where are Hamas and Fatah‎? Where are Abbas and Haniyeh? I call on anyone with any remaining honor, the Palestinian people are dying.” Another stated that all of the factions owe an apology to the Palestinian people, especially the residents of Gaza, because they are more concerned with internal issues than with the welfare of residents: “Factionalism has pushed us back many years, our [main] problem has become the problem of [the lack of] reconciliation.”[3] Some supporters of Hamas attempted to intervene in the discourse, claiming that the protests are being controlled by members of Fatah who are constantly striving to undermine Hamas: “The goal of April 29 is to strike against Hamas, this is its only goal.”[4]

While coordinating the demonstration online, young people from Gaza expressed their concern that the internal security forces of Hamas would attempt to thwart the demonstration and might come to make arrests. It is possible that these fears had a negative impact on the number of protesters, which totaled only a few dozen. Their fears were indeed validated when Hamas personnel in civilian clothing arrested several participants and confiscated photographers’ cameras. Many of the demonstrators reported on social media that Hamas agents brutally subdued the demonstration, beating women and journalists who were only “attempting to make their voices heard.” One of the young people noted that the response of Hamas to the protests against its rule could have been expected: “Anyone who expected Hamas to behave humanely towards the people is stupid. The history is clear but people are ashamed to read it.”[5] Another young man from the Gaza tweeted, “The repression of April 29 is proof that Hamas considers us a people who are led by stick and sword. Any voice raised by the oppressed will be subdued and silenced.”[6] Another Gazan tweeted wrote: “The crushing of April 29 proves that ‘the Gaza gang’ [Hamas] is incapable of accepting the Palestinian people and solving their problems.”[7] Many of the above users criticized the behavior of Hamas and demanded an investigation.

In response to these developments, the Hamas internal security office used its Twitter account to declare that it had tried to provide optimal conditions for the demonstration, but once it became violent and endangered the public welfare it was necessary for the police to intervene. This explanation was received with disdain and disparagement on social media. Many openly declared that the time has come to replace the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, describing it as a dictatorial, military regime that tyrannically subjugates residents. One user sadly wrote, “How is it that only a few months ago we defended Hamas and considered it a force for resistance and the liberation of Palestine… Today we consider it a blind movement whose name we are unwilling to hear.”[8] Another dared to state explicitly, “We want a revolution. We want to bring Hamas down. This is the truth.” Meanwhile another claimed that all residents of Gaza want to “pull down the corrupt idol from its ivory tower.”[9]

The follow-up discourse was dedicated to drawing conclusions from the failed demonstration; its ineffectuality can be attributed both to its low participant turnout and its dispersal before its scheduled end. Several users claimed that the location of the demonstration in Shuja’iyya caused its failure, because it is difficult to access from the south. It would have been better to demonstrate across from the legislature, where thousands of people would likely have gathered.[10]The leaders of April 29 themselves noted on social media[11] that they will continue to work on organizing additional demonstrations to enable people to speak and started the “Snowball”  hashtag for this purpose.[12]

Studying the online discourse surrounding this demonstration shows the increasing dissatisfaction of many young people in the Gaza Strip with the leadership of Hamas, because of what they consider to be its unwillingness to create significant change in the Strip. From the perspective of young people who are not Hamas supporters, the party’s leadership is a group of self-serving parties concerned only with staying in office and protecting the interests of its allies. Moreover, the brutal response of its security forces to the protest only reinforced their impression that Hamas is a dictatorship that will not hesitate to use violence in order to silence critics, even if those voices are trying to express the distress of the Palestinian people, promote reconciliation, and not necessarily to change the current political structure.