As war with Israel shatters lives, more Gazans question Hamas decisions

Israel has deployed troops and tanks near Gaza in the final hours of the latest cease-fire, telling its forces to prepare for possible resumption of hostilities with Hamas. (Reuters)

Ziad Abu Halool says he is tired of seeing his neighborhood destroyed. He’s tired of having no running water for 10 days, no electricity for even longer. He’s tired of watching Hamas and other Palestinian militants fire rockets into Israel from his neighborhood — and tired of praying that Israeli retaliation won’t obliterate his house.

So, after more than a month of war and devastation, Abu Halool speaks words that once seemed unthinkable: He says that although he despises Israel, he also blames Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups for his woes.

They have “committed many mistakes,” said Abu Halool, a government employee. “All the Palestinian factions should stop firing rockets. It’s enough. We’ve been suffering.”

As the Palestinian death toll tops 1,900, more and more Gazans are questioning the decisions and strategies of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that tightly controls the Gaza Strip and is known to intimidate — and sometimes harm — those critical of its policies. Most of the disapproval is still beneath the surface, hinted at only in private conversations. But in battered enclaves such as Beit Lahiya, discontent is bubbling up openly, fueled by a sense of helplessness and fatigue.

The criticism does not necessarily reflect a loss of support for Hamas. Most Palestinians, even Hamas’s biggest detractors, say they back the current war against Israel, believing it is the only way to achieve the short-term Palestinian demands of lifting the Israeli and Egyptian economic blockades of Gaza and opening the strip’s border crossings. No Beit Lahiya residents accuse Hamas of using them as human shields, as Israel claims, even as they acknowledge that militants are firing rockets from their neighborhoods.

Families return to their homes Aug. 3 in the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza Strip. Many rocket attacks on Israel originated from nearby farms, causing the Israel Defense Forces to target the area with artillery. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)

Yet the growing frustration among Palestinians suggests that, despite their fervent nationalism, many hold Hamas partly accountable for the humanitarian crisis. That resentment could build if Hamas reignites war during the 72-hour cease-fire — one of several truces in the conflict — that was holding for a second day Tuesday.

And if Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Cairo reach a durable peace deal, Hamas could face popular pressure to rebuild Gaza and improve the devastated economy, or at least not hinder international reconstruction efforts.

“If that is not done between now and the next Palestinian elections, Hamas will be in a very difficult situation,” said Mkhaimer Abusaada, a political analyst at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “Yes, the Palestinians embrace Hamas and the Palestinian resistance against Israel. But at the end of the day, they would like to see their homes and infrastructure repaired. . . . If that is not done in the short term, it will reflect badly on Hamas and its popularity on the Palestinian street.”

Before the current conflict began July 8, Hamas was politically isolated. It had lost backing from its main sponsors, Syria and Iran, for refusing to support the Syrian regime against the Sunni Muslim-led rebellion. Egypt’s military-backed government, which ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party, considers Hamas a threat.

Palestinians were increasingly disillusioned by Hamas and its inability to end Israel’s partial blockade of its border with Gaza and Egypt’s as well, which have crippled the economy, analysts said. Hamas, which seized control of the coastal strip in 2007, was in such a financial crunch that it couldn’t pay the salaries of 44,000 government employees. Hamas’s rule has also been clouded by allegations of official corruption.

“There was some frustration [with] Hamas,” said Hamza Abu Shanab, a political analyst whose father was a top Hamas leader who was assassinated by Israel in 2003. “People thought Hamas had abandoned the resistance, that Hamas was looking only after themselves.”

But going to war with Israel bolstered Hamas’s image and popularity. On the streets, virtually every Palestinian interviewed during the hostilities praised the militants’ fight against Israel, which killed 64 Israeli soldiers, and the rockets and cross-border tunnels that sowed fear among the Israeli public.

Residents of Nusairat, Gaza Strip, gather to watch Aug. 9 as bodies are excavated from the rubble of al-Qassam Mosque, which was hit by an Israeli airstrike. (Max Becherer / Polaris Images for The Washington Post )

When Hamas and other Palestinian militant factions rejected an Egyptian-crafted cease-fire a week into the conflict, a cessation that Israel accepted, there was no public criticism from Palestinians, but only a sense that Hamas was on the right track toward pressuring Israel into accepting Palestinian demands. In the days after, as Israel launched a ground invasion, Hamas’s popularity soared.

Now, some Palestinians are questioning the decision to reject the first truce. Roughly 200 Palestinians had been killed in the fighting at that time. Today, amid another Egyptian-led truce effort, the death toll is nearly 10 times greater, and Gaza is a wasteland of destruction that exceeds that left behind after the previous two
Israel-Hamas conflicts, in 2009 and 2012.

“All the people are whispering, ‘Why didn’t Hamas accept the Egyptian initiative in the beginning of the war when the casualties were still low?’ ” said Hani Habib, a Palestinian journalist and political analyst.

Those sentiments can be heard around Beit Lahiya, a sprawling, hilly enclave of large houses abutting the border with Israel. Many residents said they were exhausted from bearing the brunt of the war, noting that the fighting had done much less damage to Israel.

“They should have accepted the cease-fire,” said Hathem Mena, 55, a teacher, referring to Hamas and other Palestinian militants. “It would have stopped the bloodshed. We are the ones affected by the war, our houses and our lives. The destruction is over on this side, not the Israeli side.”

Other residents said they wanted the militants to stop shooting rockets from their neighborhoods because that often brought a far more forceful reaction from Israel.

“When they fire from here, Israel repays us with an F-16 airstrike,” said Rafaat Shamiya, 40, adding that he largely blames Israel. “We are tired. We don’t have the power to fight the Israeli. While he is sitting in his office in Israel, he can destroy all of Gaza by remote control.”

Abu Halool, the government employee, said Hamas should have foreseen the consequences for the Palestinian people of supporting Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot.

“Now we don’t have relations with any other Arab country,” he said. “We should have stayed out of it.”

Some residents said they don’t expect Hamas and other Palestinian militant factions to help rebuild Gaza.

“They just fight Israel, and then they leave everything,” said Mahmoud, 20, who asked that his last name not be used. “The people will pay the price.”

Still, no Gazans interviewed said they were forced by Hamas to remain in their neighborhoods to serve as human shields, as Israel has alleged. And no one suggested that Hamas’s decision to wage war against Israel was misguided. Israel, they said, has given Palestinians no alternative route to improving their lives and living with dignity.

“All this is a reaction to what Israel is doing,” Abu Halool said. “Our blood is not cheap.”

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's Kabul bureau chief since 2014. He was previously based in Nairobi and Baghdad for the Post.

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