Omar Ghraieb
The Media Line
March 16, 2011 - 12:00am

In a move reminiscent of early days of revolution in Cairo and Tunis, Hamas unleashed its security forces over the last two days to disperse thousands of protesters gathered to urge unity between Hamas and Fatah and ensure they don’t launch new demonstrations.

At least one person, Baha Al-Ejleh, was reported beaten to death on Wednesday and another 30 were injured in clashes at Gaza Strip’s Al-Azhar University.

Violent clashes with undercover Hamas police began on Tuesday in the first internecine violence in the Gaza since turmoil exploded in the Middle East three months ago. It also came as Israeli jets bombed a Hamas headquarters, killing two militants in response to rockets fired at Israel earlier Wednesday.

“I never thought Hamas would actually attack the protesters with such brutality,” said O.S., a 28-year-old from Gaza, who asked not to be fully identified out of fear of retribution.

The protests had been organized with social networks started by youth inspired by the revolts in Arab countries. Calling itself “March15” on Facebook, the organizers initially called a mass public demonstration to demand reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and an end of Palestinian divisions that have put the West Bank and Gaza Strip under separate rule. Insisting they were apolitical, the organizers had won initial support from both Fatah and Hamas.

The Islamist Hamas organization, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, has been in talks to revive a national unity coalition it briefly had with the nationalist Fatah. But the organization apparently saw the unauthorized protests as a threat to its grip on the coastal enclave, home to 1.7 million Palestinians.

That turned ugly on Tuesday when Hamas crushed demonstrations gathering at the Martyr’s Square. That event crossed a red line when security forces did not refrain from brutally dispersing women, who made up nearly half of the crowd. Journalists were also attacked, including one female reporter who was stabbed in the back.

Female protesters are very active and we decided to make an impact at these protests to prove that we are strong and present,” said Nalan Sarraj, 20, a freelance journalist, radio host and blogger from Gaza.

According to Sarraj, about 40%of the demonstrators were women, mostly between the ages of 18 and 26, and their mothers, who came along as escorts.

“We came out for unity and end of the Palestinian division. I am shocked to see Hamas sending guys in civilian clothes attacking protesters with clubs,” Sarraj said.

She echoed other protestors who said they were perplexed and appalled that Hamas attacked them despite initially sanctioning the demonstrations. Sarraj had personally questioned Hamas official Ihab Al-Ghussein earlier this week who told her that his organization would support the protests.

“Why did Hamas attack the protesters if they aren’t rallying against it? Why did they claim to support the protests when they attacked the protesters?” she asked.

Following the clashes Tuesday night, scores of female demonstrators were left in tears after being visibly beaten, said Noor Ahmed, a freelance journalist from Gaza who also suffered bruises.

Samah Ahmed, a female journalist from Gaza, was in worse shape. She had been stabbed trying to take pictures and videos of the demonstrations. Her unidentified assailant fled and she was brought to Shifa hospital where she is recovering from her wounds.

The Foreign Press Association, organization representing foreign correspondents in Israel and Palestinian-ruled areas, issued a statement condemning the Hamas crackdown on the media.

“On a day ostensibly devoted to Palestinian unity, police brutally attacked photographers and cameramen, beating them, breaking equipment and confiscating photos and video footage. This is the latest in a string of chilling attacks on reporters in Gaza. We again implore the authorities to respect the basic right of freedom of the press and to let all journalists do their jobs freely and safely,” the statement said.

On Wednesday, dazed and unable to successfully determine a site for further mass demonstrations, protesters started an ad-hoc assembly at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. Witnesses said Hamas police in civilian clothes assaulted the demonstrators until they dispersed. The university later issued a statement said its students had been beaten, but it did not level the blame on anyone.

A spokesman for the Hamas Interior Ministry denied police had entered the campus. “What happened at the university was a problem between students,” Al-Ghussein told Agence France Presse.

At the nearby Al-Quds University, students also experience similar crackdowns, but here they were aided by black-uniformed Hamas policemen with clubs. By mid-day, the streets of Gaza City were heavily patrolled by Hamas police. Sporadic demonstrations fizzled to the backdrop of Israeli warplanes in the blue skies over head buzzing Hamas installations, witnesses said.

In an address on its Al-Aqsa Television, Hamas denied any of its members were involved in the assaults.

In an atmosphere of suspicion, rumors began circulating on Wednesday that the rival Fatah movement had dispatched the thugs in order to make Hamas look bad. These rumors were mostly dismissed with people asking if it were true why didn’t Hamas come to their rescue.

“I’m more and more against the division now than ever because this has to stop and Palestinians everywhere need to have the freedom of speech,” O.S. told The Media Line.


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