Chris McGreal
The Guardian
November 10, 2011 - 1:00am

Samah Ahmed is once again a prisoner of Gaza, but this time it is at the hands of Hamas not Israel.

Years of travelling relatively freely after Israel lost control of the enclave's border with Egypt came to an abrupt halt a few months ago when Ahmed's strident criticisms of Hamas caught the attention of Gaza's increasingly unpopular Islamist rulers.

Ahmed was beaten and stabbed at a political demonstration. Her brother was warned to keep her in line. Then Hamas stopped Ahmed leaving the Gaza Strip. Four times.

"I try to tell the truth and maybe the government didn't like it," she said of her blog. "Anything that is not organised by the Hamas government is viewed as against the government."

Hamas has been enjoying a surge in popularity following the swap of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for the release of more than a 1,000 Palestinian prisoners last month.

"The people are now looking up to Hamas," said one of the movement's leaders, Ismail Radwan. "With the prisoner release, Hamas has given to the people what no other faction has given. If there is an election tomorrow we will win even more votes than before."

But the huge rallies to welcome the prisoners back masked growing disillusionment with the armed Islamist movement's five-year rule amid rising dissatisfaction at corruption, suppression of political opposition and, above all, its claim that violent resistance to Israeli occupation is more important than jobs.

"The prisoner swap has boosted Hamas's popularity for now," said Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar university in Gaza. "But it won't last more than a few months. Hamas's popularity has declined every year it has been in power. Hamas control of Gaza brought an Israeli blockade and siege. Even though it was Israeli-imposed, a lot of people blame Hamas. The Palestinians voted Hamas for reform and change. They didn't vote for siege and blockade and unemployment. They voted to end the corruption. None of that happened."

Hamas's upset election victory in 2006 was built largely on despair with the corruption, misgovernance and authoritarianism of the ruling Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat until his death two years earlier. Many residents of Gaza now voice similar complaints about Hamas.

"They're back to the same old corruption," said Mohammed Mansour, a human rights activist and part of a growing community of young people pressing for political change. "Hamas is a party that only benefits its own party, its own supporters. If you want a job, if you want to do business, you must be a supporter of Hamas. Some people in Hamas have got very rich. You see the big houses, you see the new cars."

That has created resentment among Gazans struggling to get by in the face of mass unemployment and low incomes.

But the real despair is around the widespread lack of hope for change as Hamas touts armed conflict with Israel as more important that economic reconstruction, and the sometimes violent political feud with its arch-rival Fatah has divided the Palestinian territories. While Hamas controls Gaza, Fatah governs the West Bank – a situation that plays into Israel's hands.

"I think people are different now," said Ola Anan, a 27-year-old computer engineer. "It's a long time since anything has changed. I think people feel hopeless that they're going to change. If it's going to change it's only for the worse. A lot of people are losing faith in politics altogether. Sometimes I think we need to follow the Arab spring and create something new. People are so fed up."

The Arab spring has had its impact in Gaza, although confrontation with the territory's rulers is more circumspect in part because, unlike the now-defunct regimes across the Arab world, Hamas won an open election.

Anan was among those behind a protest in March to demand Hamas and Fatah resolve their political differences and reunite the Palestinian territories under a single government in order to better confront Israel and end the occupation.

The demonstration's organisers called for supporters to wave only the Palestinian flag as a sign of unity. Activists set up tents, drawing on the experience of protesters in Cairo. They adopted a chant – "The people want an end to division" – and a poster of Arafat pouring tea for the assassinated Hamas spiritual leader, Ahmed Yassin.

"We are calling on them to rebuild the regime not replace the regime," said Ahmed, who also joined the protests. "After what happened in Tunisia and Egypt we decided we shouldn't stay silent. Four years of division has affected the economic life, the social life, the everyday life of people. We went to the market to talk to people, to say how ending the division is the first step to ending the occupation."

Hamas, ever sensitive to any challenge to its authority, moved swiftly to neuter the threat by at first hijacking the demonstration and then violently suppressing activists who attempted to turn it into a rolling protest modelled on other Arab uprisings.

Some of the demonstrators were severely beaten, including many women who suffered broken bones. Ahmed was stabbed by a man in a Hamas uniform and was taken to hospital.

"They used a lot of violence against those who stayed," she said. "Anything that is not organised by the government is viewed as against the government."

Ahmed says the authorities have four times prevented her from leaving the Gaza Strip, she believes because of her public criticisms of Hamas on her blog.

"I feel watched. They gave warnings to my brother. They took our cameras and phones. They can do that but I'm going to continue to seek the right to freedom," she said.

Anan said Hamas is becoming what it says it opposes.

"Sometimes we feel we are used to Israeli oppression for a long time but a new generation is dealing with a new repression, a local one," she said.

Faisal Abu Shahla, a senior official in Fatah, an organisation responsible for a good deal of repression of its own when it was in power, accuses Hamas of holding 700 political prisoners in Gaza as part of a broad campaign to suppress dissent.

"When I talk to young activists who are under pressure from Hamas, they are prevented from travel, they are watched, they take their computers, they take their cell phones, they are investigating them," he said. "The Gaza Strip is not that big. They cannot hide. There's no one to protect them."

Radwan, the senior Hamas official, is dismissive.

"The people who make these accusations are the people who hate Hamas and are collaborating with Israel. Hamas respects freedom of speech. The freedom that people here have is not matched anywhere in the world, including in the US and Britain," he said.

The decline of support for Hamas does not mean any revival in Fatah's fortunes. Its leader, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, enjoyed a surge in popularity after he pressed the UN security council to recognise Palestinian statehood in September.

But Abu Shahla acknowledges that many Palestinians remain wary of the party because of its history of corruption and abuses of power.

"Fatah is not succeeding in winning the confidence of the people even though support for Hamas is fading," he said. "Hamas will not get the same result in Gaza because the people here have experienced Hamas rule. They have watched the corruption, the elimination of human rights, the limits on political freedom and the freedom to express yourself.

"But if there is no progress on the peace process, Hamas will do better than before in the West Bank. The Israelis are still there, the settlers are still there, and Palestinians in the West Bank who have not experienced Hamas rule will look at Hamas and the prisoner release and say it knows how to get things done with the Israelis."


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