As the war drags on, Gazans are increasingly willing to speak out against Hamas

On October 7, as the Hamas-led attack on Israel unfolded, many Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza to celebrate what they likened to a prison break and saw as the sudden humiliation of an occupier.

But it was only a temporary boost for Hamas, whose support among Gazans has long been low. And while the Israeli assault brought widespread devastation and tens of thousands of deaths, the group and its leaders remained largely unpopular in the enclave. Many Gazans have even been willing to speak out against Hamas, risking retaliation.

In interviews conducted with nearly a dozen Gaza residents in recent months, many of them said they hold Hamas responsible for starting the war and helping to bring death and destruction upon them, even as they blame Israel first and foremost.

One Gaza resident, Raed al-Kelani, 47, said Hamas always acts in its own interests.

“It all started on October 7 and he wants to finish it on his own terms,” said al-Kelani, who worked as a civil servant for the former Palestinian Authority government in Gaza, run by a rival Hamas faction. before Hamas took control of the territory in 2007.

“But time is running out and there is no hope of putting an end to this,” he added. Al-Kelani now prepares meals and distributes food aid in shelters for displaced people in Gaza. “Hamas is still looking for its share of power,” he said. “Hamas doesn't know how to get down from the tree it climbed.”

Some Gazans who spoke to The New York Times said Hamas knew it would start a devastating war with Israel that would cause heavy civilian casualties, but that it failed to provide food, water or shelter to help people survive. Hamas leaders said they wanted to trigger a permanent state of war with Israel on all fronts as a way to revive the Palestinian cause and knew the Israeli response would be great.

Hints of dissent have emerged throughout the war, sometimes even as Gazans mourned loved ones killed by Israeli attacks. Others waited until they left the enclave to condemn Hamas – and even then were sometimes reluctant in case the group survived the war and continued to rule Gaza.

In March, prominent Gaza photojournalist Motaz Azaiza sparked a brief firestorm on social media when he indirectly criticized Hamas after leaving the territory. He was one of the few young local journalists who became internationally famous at the start of the war for documenting the death and destruction on social media.

“If the death and starvation of their people makes no difference to them,” he wrote in reference to Hamas, “it need not make any difference to us. Cursed be everyone who has trafficked in our blood, burned our hearts and homes, and ruined our lives.”

Some Palestinians attacked him for the comments, and Mr. Azaiza felt compelled to defend himself publicly. But many in Gaza agreed that he was giving voice to a sentiment that had grown over the course of the war.

Gauging public opinion in Gaza was difficult even before the war began. First, Hamas, which long controlled the territory, perpetuated a culture of fear with its oppressive system of government and exacted retaliation against those who criticized it.

Now, the polls have become even more difficult, with most of Gaza's 2.2 million residents repeatedly displaced by the war, ongoing communications disruptions and continued Israeli military offensives.

However, some recent polls reflect weak or mixed support in Gaza for Hamas and its leaders. In some cases, contradictory findings highlight the complications of investigating a transient population in the fog of war.

In March, a survey conducted by the West Bank-based Institute for Social and Economic Progress asked Gazans what they thought of Hamas leaders. About three quarters they opposed Yahya Sinwar, the group's Gaza-based leader, and a similar share opposed Ismail Haniyeh, the movement's political leader in exile.

“When you realize, after six or seven months, that Gaza is completely destroyed, your life as a Gazan is completely destroyed, that's where the people who don't support Sinwar or Haniyeh come from,” said Obada Shtaya, a Palestinian and one of the founders of the Institute for Social and Economic Progress.

Other polls paint a more mixed picture. A A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Polling Research in Gaza and released last week showed that support in Gaza for Hamas leaders is slightly higher and that the percentage of those satisfied with Hamas' leadership in the territory is increased since December.

But it also showed that support for Hamas, which continues to rule the territory, has waned slightly over the past three months.

Basem Naim, Hamas spokesman, said public support for Hamas in Gaza is no less than 50%. This includes Hamas members in Gaza – who he estimated numbered more than 100,000 – and their families.

“Are there people in Gaza who blame Hamas? Of course,” he told the Times. “We are not saying that 100% of Gaza residents are supporters of Hamas or are happy with what happened,” she added.

“In the end,” he said, “this is a natural thing in societies where some people are for it and some are against it. And we welcome this position.”

Some of the nearly a dozen Gazans the Times spoke to about Hamas say this war has lasted longer than any previous conflict between Israel and an armed Palestinian faction in Gaza, in part because Hamas seeks not just to survive, but to cling to power. And if so, there is no guarantee that future wars with Israel will not return Gazans to the same misery.

Hamas says it will not accept any ceasefire agreement with Israel that leads only to a temporary truce, fearing that the war would start again once the Israeli hostages are freed. The group says it wants a permanent ceasefire.

Naim said that if Hamas had such low popularity because of the war, then it should be left to elections that allow Palestinians to choose their own representatives. But in recent decades, both Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank have had few opportunities to express their voices in democratic elections.

The two territories are geographically separated and, while Hamas has ruled Gaza for more than a decade, the more moderate Palestinian Authority administers parts of the West Bank.

The Fatah party, Hamas' rival, lost legislative elections to Hamas in 2006. The following year, Hamas fighters routed Fatah forces from Gaza and forcibly took control of the territory. Since then, the political divide between Hamas and Fatah has, to a large extent, hindered the elections.

In 2021, Palestinian parliamentary elections were postponed indefinitely after Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, expressed concern about possible Israeli government restrictions on voting. However, there was also speculation at the time that Abbas might delay because he was worried about Fatah losing ground.

Naim accused Israel and the United States of disrupting past Palestinian elections.

A Gaza resident who fled to Egypt with her family in recent months said she regularly hears from friends and relatives that they don't want the war to end before Hamas is defeated in Gaza. You said Hamas has prioritized its own goals over the well-being of the Palestinians it claims to defend and represent.

“They could have given up a long time ago and saved us from all this suffering,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of possible retaliation if her criticisms were made public.

Even for Palestinians who have chafed under Hamas's iron grip on Gaza for more than a decade, October 7 gave them the sense, at least initially, that it was a battle for liberation from Israeli occupation. Much of Gaza's population is made up of refugees or descendants of refugees who fled their homes in present-day Israel after being expelled or forced to flee during the war surrounding the founding of the Israeli state. They were never allowed to return.

When Hamas attacked Israel, most Gazans supported that “form of resistance,” said a 26-year-old lawyer from Gaza who also asked not to be named.

“But what we do not support is that they continue with this war when they have not achieved any of the objectives that they set for themselves,” the lawyer said. “This is not resistance. This is madness.

Hamas's stated objectives for the attack were primarily concerned with broader Palestinian aspirations beyond Gaza's borders. And some residents of the territory have long felt that with each new round of war between Hamas and Israel, the group is trying to raise its global profile and support more universal Palestinian causes at the expense of ordinary Gazans.

One of Hamas' goals was to free Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, some of them from Gaza, but others from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It also wanted to prevent Israel from exercising greater control over the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City – one of Islam's holiest sites – and stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The more Hamas pursued these goals rather than quickly ending the war, the more Gazans said they believed other Palestinians were gaining their freedom at their expense.

“I don't want to sacrifice my life, my house and my home for anyone,” said Ameen Abed, a resident of Jabaliya in northern Gaza, upon the release of one of the prisoners.

“Who are you to impose this kind of life on me? My house is gone because someone's confinement will end after four months, why?” He said. “What have I benefited from?”

While Hamas and even the Israeli hostages were in underground tunnels, he said, Gazans were above ground with no protection from the Israeli and US bombs dropped above their heads every day. This is a complaint often heard from critics of Hamas in Gaza.

“There is uncontrolled anger against Hamas,” he said. “He threw the Palestinian people to the bottom of the well.”

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