Amnesty International recently released a report, Strangling Necks, detailing war crimes committed by Hamas during the 2014 war with Israel. Unlike previous reports on Hamas’ crimes, this one focuses on crimes committed against Palestinians, including abduction, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
While this behaviour is illegal under both international and Palestinian law and morally outrageous to boot, it is hardly new. Since it took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 after a brief but bloody civil war with its rival Fatah, Hamas has instituted an authoritarian system of rule which shows scant regard for human rights or freedom of expression.
This is a system of intimidation and violent repression that extends well beyond the conflict with Israel and the punishment of “collaborators” and into the complex sphere of Palestinian politics.
Old scores settled
Hamas maintains carefully calibrated relationships with other Islamist groups (such as Islamic Jihad) to maintain power and stability, and to preserve its self-proclaimed status as the primary resistance movement against Israel. But in attempts to preserve its primacy, Hamas has frequently found itself in the curious position of maintaining Israeli security by preventing rocket attacks by such groups. Reports from Gaza document a violent security crackdown on salafist movements after a slew of bombings.
The Strangling Necks report focuses on more recent cases, but the settling of old scores has been common practice ever since 2007. Whether secular or Islamist, public political protest of any description has been suppressed, and Fatah affiliates have been a main target of detention and torture.
Iron grip: Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. EPA/Jamal Nasrallah
In a June 2014 poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), 67.9% of Gazans said they could not criticise the Hamas authorities without fear. A survey conducted simultaneously by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) found that crime was a significant concern among 71% of Gazan respondents and that 46.9% thought that militias not organised under formal authority structures were a significant problem.
These concerns are well founded. As has always been the case in Palestinian politics, multiple security forces operate in Gaza, pursuing different agendas without any centralised command – and the results are often lethal. That much was made clear by the case of Mahmoud Abu Rahma from Gaza’s al-Mezan Center for Human Rights.
On December 31 2011, Rahma published a lengthy condemnation of the injustice suffered by Gazans at the hands of the “resistance forces” and the Hamas government, calling for accountability, good governance, and the rule of law to prevail in Gaza and across the occupied Palestinian territories. The list of grievances included assault, torture, murder, victimisation through the tunnelling industry and civilian deaths from proximity to training sites under Israeli attack.
Within two weeks, Rahma started receiving threatening texts and phone calls, and was twice attacked by masked men accusing him of being a “collaborator”. The second time, he suffered multiple stab wounds. In response, the Hamas-controlled Ministry of the Interior pledged to investigate, but it’s as yet unclear if anyone has been brought to justice – and it seems highly unlikely. Gaza’s governance structures sorely lack accountability and legal protection.
The ministry further claimed that they respected the right of political expression as long as it conformed with “national responsibility” – a euphemism for resisting Israel.
Although the ongoing blockade and regular periods of war allow Hamas to deflect criticism towards Israel for the many ills of the Gaza Strip, many Gazans are losing patience with their rulers. According to a PSR poll from March 2015, support for Hamas – normally boosted by Palestinian deaths from Israeli attacks – has actually declined since the end of 2014, and popular perceptions of the outcome of the recent war have grown more negative.
This is all rooted in the growing frustration with Hamas’ inability to improve post-war conditions in Gaza. This is in turn linked to the fact that there has been scant progress towards an effective unity government with Fatah, whose internationalisation campaign has started to make real headway – even winning Palestine membership of the International Criminal Court.
As signatories to the Rome statute, Palestinians could find themselves in the dock in the Hague one day. Moves are already underway: the Israeli civil rights group Shurat Hadin has already filed a case against Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal. But the prospect of Hamas’s leaders actually ending up in the Hague is still a remote one, and it has many more immediate problems to deal with.
Ultimately, Hamas’s aims are unchanged: to end the Israeli blockade and to gain the upper hand against Fatah in Palestinian politics. And if repression seems to serve these ends, it will continue.
62.3% of Gazans polled in 2014 expected an improvement in public liberties and political detention under a Palestinian unity government, but this has proved elusive. How long Gazans will tolerate the status quo remains to be seen, but the prospects for non-violent change (through new elections, for example) seem minimal – and Hamas will do everything in its power to hold on to what it’s got.
In the meantime, Amnesty and other organisations should continue to express their outrage and document crimes in the hope of an era of accountability – even if they are currently screaming into the abyss.