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16 March 2009

Myths and Facts About Gaza

Face-covering scarf, gun, stone, fence, rocket … these may construct the typical perception in the minds of many when it comes to Gaza; yet, what exactly is myth and what are the realities about the humanitarian and militant turbulence in the Gaza Strip.

Are Gazans no more than a militant group shooting rockets at civilians in Israel? How did it all start, and where is the situation now heading?

1. Is Hamas a terrorist organization?

Until today, there is no agreed upon definition for terrorism that groups and actions can be measured upon. Thus, the label "terrorist" can easily be abused for political gains and interests.

The famous quotes: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" can apply here perfectly. While 62% of Palestinians hold a favorable view of Hamas, as the Pew Global Attitude Survey found in 2007, and given that Hamas was democratically elected for parliament in 2006, it has been listed by Canada, Israel, Japan, and the US as a "terrorist" organization.

In an interview with the Der Spiegel, Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' political leader, affirmed, "we are a national resistance movement, not a terrorist organization. We have the right to resist the occupation."

Mahmoud Al-Zahar, prominent Hamas leader, wrote in the Washington Post, "our movement fights on because we cannot allow the foundational crime at the core of the Jewish state — the violent expulsion from our lands and villages that made us refugees — to slip out of world consciousness, forgotten or negotiated away." (Washington Post)

2. Was Hamas' takeover of Gaza justified?

To the surprise of Fateh and international observers, Hamas was able to secure the majority of votes in the first elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) since 1996. Accordingly, Hamas was legally asked to form the majority government and rule over Gaza and the West Bank. However, since its victory in January 2006 till mid-2007, the internal scene was not stable with confrontations between Hams and the Fateh movement. In addition, international pressure played on the side of Fateh to alienate the democratically elected members of Hamas, which is considered as a terrorist organization by the US, Israel, Japan, and Canada.

Among the main reasons that helped in the failure of the anticipated unity government was the international attitude.
Sanctions were imposed and foreign aid was held away from the Palestinians, who depend mainly on it, by the main donors — the US, EU, and several Western states.

In February 2007 the Saudi government spent significant efforts to unite the Palestinian factions under one government in order to end the sectarian division. Ministerial positions were distributed among the different factions and a Palestinian national unity government was was on its way to succeed. However, among the main reasons that helped in the failure of the anticipated unity government was the international attitude. The US announced its boycotting of the Hamas members in such government, Israel did not recognize it, and the EU hanged its position on the new government's actions. (Aljazeera)

Clashes erupted once again and Hamas took over control of Gaza. Legally, the government in Gaza in not considered a legal one, nor the one in the West Bank — emergency government — formed by Fateh, is, according to Dr. Ahmed Mubarak Al-Khaldi, the former Minister of Justice of the Palestinian National Authority.

3. Does Hamas have a complete control over Gaza?

A recent report (March 2008) by the International Crisis Group found that the Hamas has almost a complete monopoly over the use of force and political activity in the Gaza Strip. Hamas has also been able to refashion the legal and legislative systems and now "enjoys freer rein to shape society through management of the health, education and religious sectors," the report stated.

Within little time after seizing control over Gaza in June 2007, Hamas was able to fill in the gaps left behind as a result of the absence of Fateh in the Strip; its mission was to defend Gaza from internal and external threats.

4. Are Gazans held hostage in the hands of Hamas?

Hamas supporters take part in a protest calling on Egypt to reopen the Rafah border crossing, near the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, Apr. 25, 2008. (Reuters Photo)
Analyzing the current situation, it is very clear that the 1.5 million Gazans along with Hamas are held hostage by external forces through the complete control of the borders mainly by Egypt and Israel. The 365-square-kilometer Gaza strip is bounded by the Mediterranean sea from the north, state of Israel from the east, and Egypt from the west. Such geographical characteristics of the Gaza strip make it more or less the "world's largest open-air prison" with multi-party prisoners.

Every now and then, Egyptian-Israeli negotiations — or unilateral action — allow some injured victims to pass out of Gaza, yet other vital humanitarian needs are held in many times from getting inside the strip.

Hamas, rather, tried early in 2008 to pierce in a hole in the boarders for Gazans. The Gaza-Egypt borders were breached by Gazans with the help of the Hamas forces in January and hundreds of thousands of Gazans poured into Sinai, Egypt to buy consumer goods; 10 days later, the borders were sealed with less hopes for an agreement that would release Gazans out of their prison.

5. Are all Gazans Hamas members?

In April 2008, some Israeli reports estimated the number of the Hamas forces in Gaza to be up to 20,000 armed men, nearly half of them from in Hamas' military arm, Izz-Eddin Al-Kassam group; such claims were refuted by Sami Abou-Zuhri, the spokesman of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Besides the estimates of the Hamas armed members, the number of civilian sympathizers is way far from estimation. It is important to mention that Hamas is originally a social/political movement and not a militia; along with several branches and arms, Hamas has its military wing Izz-Eddin Al-Kassam.

In 2004, 300,000 Palestinians marched in the funeral of Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantisi — who was Hamas' leader in Gaza.

As mentioned above, 62% of Palestinians hold a favorable view of Hamas, according to a 2007Survey by the Pew Global Attitude Project.

In addition, a recent study by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research noted the increase in Hamas' popularity as the siege went tighter. "Findings show continued decrease in the level of satisfaction with the performance of [ President Mahmoud] Abbas and a greater positive evaluation for the performance of Haniyeh’s government over the performance of Fayyad's government," the study said.

Hence, it would be fallacious to include the number of the Palestinian civilians that sympathize with Hamas in the members' count. Out of the 1.5 million Palestinian in Gaza, very minute percentage are actual members in Hamas.

6. Is Hamas accepting no peace deals with Israel?

"A 'peace process' with Palestinians cannot take even its first tiny step until Israel first withdraws to the borders of 1967; dismantles all settlements; removes all soldiers from Gaza and the West Bank; repudiates its illegal annexation of Jerusalem; releases all prisoners; and ends its blockade of our international borders, our coastline and our airspace permanently," Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a prominent Hamas leader, made it clear in his Washington Post opinion piece.

In a live chat session with's readers, Dr. Ahmed Bahr — the current head of the legislative council in Gaza — said in response to a question about Hamas' willingness to negotiate with Israel, "there are the five Nos that they announce and consider as strategies; No for the establishment of the Palestinian state on the 1967 boarders, No for Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state, No for the return of refugees, No for the stop of the wall and the settlements, No for the release of prisoners ... So what shall we negotiate about with the Israelis?"

After the recent efforts exerted by the former US President Jimmy Carter, Carter said that Hamas told him that "they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders if approved by Palestinians ... even though Hamas might disagree with some terms of the agreement."

7. Why isn't there an agreement between Hamas and Fateh?

Currently, Fateh controls the West Bank and is led by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas is controlling the Gaza Strip and so far no efforts have been successful in reuniting them.
Several failing attempts have been conducted to bring along a unity government that would solve the Gaza-West Bank division. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other parties were faced with the conditions that the two parties, Hamas and Fateh, place ahead of negotiations.

Fateh, currently controlling the West Bank and led by President Mahmoud Abbas, condition negotiations with Hamas on the return of Gaza under the former's rule, while Hamas desires negotiations with Fateh while keeping the status-quo as is.

In the midst of the mediation efforts, tensions rose on both sides as a result of the several provocative announcements by leaders and media stations. Imprisonment of the other's group members also contributed much to entangling the agreements' efforts.

8. Who represents the Palestinian people now?

With 1.5 million in Gaza and 2.5 million in the West Bank, Hamas was chosen democratically to represent Palestinians in the 2006 Parliamentary elections. Hamas was able to secure for itself more than the minimum required 50% of seats in a 78%-turn-out-election that was described as fair and clean by observers. (Guardian)

However, that does not give Hamas the full legitimacy to speak for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, especially after the recent division of powers between the two territories.

Currently, President Mahmoud Abbas (leading Fateh figure) holds on to that role; he did it in Annapolis despite Hamas' firm rejection of him representing the will of all Palestinians. After all, his party did not win a majority in the 2006 elections.

One main resolution that former President Jimmy Carter was able to achieve in his recent (April 2008) visit to the Middle East was that Hamas agreed to pass over the representation of Palestinians to President Abbas to be able to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel; Hamas' decision was conditioned on the approval of the majority of Palestinians to negotiate a 1967 Palestinian state through a mass referendum.

9. How human are Gazans?

Bodies of four children and their mother arrive at Al-Awda mosque after Israeli fire hit their house in the northern Gaza Strip, Apr. 28, 2008. (Reuters Photo)
Hitler dehumanized Jews to be able to genocide them, and now Palestinians, especially Gazans, are being more and more deprived of their basic human rights, which is pushing them into a bigger "shoah" or Holocaust, as described by Israel's deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai on Army Radio on Friday, February 29, 2008.

Besides the mounting death toll of the direct Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza, 136 Palestinian patients died for not being allowed by the Israeli forces to leave Gaza to get treatment outside. "The right to health appears to be optional for Palestinians," Ambrogio Manenti, the head of the WHO's West Bank and Gaza office, told a press conference in April 2008.

In the period between February 28 and March 2, 2008, 104 Palestinians were murdered and 215 injured by the Israeli forces in comparison to only 3 Israelis deaths and 27 injuries for the same period of time, according to an April 18 UN Report.

Children are among the victims of the bigger "shoah." Ra'd Abu Saif narrates the last moments of his 12-year-old daughter Safa after she was shot by an Israeli sniper: "I put my hand on her chest to stop the streaming blood. She told me that she could not breathe, her body trembled and she closed her eyes." (Electronic Intifada)

Safa was shot in the left side of her chest while she was inside her home in Jabaliya, northern Gaza. An ambulance tried to reach her but Israeli soldiers opened fire at it, wounding a paramedic and causing the tires to lose air, and so she bled to death three hours after she was wounded.

"Dad, I cannot breathe, all of you leave me please, let me breathe, enough, enough," were Safa's last words.

Speaking numbers, Hamas in the Gaza strip also carries on regular missile attacks on southern Israel, yet throughout the last four years, the less advanced rockets killed 13 Israeli civilians.

Watch more about the "Palestinian Holocaust" here

10. What is the humanitarian situation in Gaza?

More than 1.1 million people, about 80% of Gaza's residents, are now dependent on food aid, as opposed to 63% in 2006. Unemployment is close to 40% and almost 70% of the 110,000 workers employed in the private sector have lost their jobs, according to a report — entitled: "The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion" — released in early March 2008 by a coalition of Human Rights organizations, Haaretz reported.

The current situation in the Gaza Strip "is worse now than it has ever been since the start of the Israeli military occupation in 1967. The current situation in Gaza is man-made, completely avoidable and, with the necessary political will, can also be reversed," the report stated.

According to the latest updates, educational services in Gaza have gone down in capacity by 50% because of the lack of the means to transport students to their schools and colleges. Because of cutting fuel of the Gaza strip, the Israeli government has caused 20% of the ambulances to go off service and 60% to be expected to park by the end of the week, forcing patients and doctors to reach hospitals on foot (Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights report).

For more about the humanitarian situation in Gaza check IOL's special coverage: Gaza: The World's Largest Open Air-Prison

11. Does Israel have the right to attack Gazans to protect itself?

As mentioned before, by no means are all Gazans Hamas members; those involved in rocket launching belong mainly to the military wing of Hamas that is at most 10,000 men, according to some Israeli sources.

Israeli raids in Gaza, claimed to be directed at rocket launchers, leave children, women, and elders dead with almost no noticeable affect on the frequency of rockets launching on Israel.

Collective punishment, including siege and raids, that does not differentiate between civilians and militants are clearly against international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel's early raids in Gaza were described by the UN as war crimes. "It violates one of the basic principles of international humanitarian law that military action must distinguish between military and civilian targets," John Dugard, UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the occupied territories, said.

12. Is the current siege effective in halting the missile attacks over Israelis?

Before using siege as a strategy to halt the rocket firing on the Israeli areas near the Gaza boarders, Israel was implementing direct air strikes on the areas where rocket-launchers were believed to be hiding. The older policy proved its failure and Israel was forced to find some new effective tactics to "protect" itself.

Of the main indications of Israel's failure in the old tactics was the fact that strikes were increasingly killing civilians, which led to the rising sympathy with Hamas and resistance in general among Palestinians. Currently, under the siege strategy, figures still show increasing popularity for Hamas; plus, rockets are still being launched towards Israel. In fact, Hamas has been able to develop more advanced operations that drove the confrontation inside Israel.

On April 19 2008, Hamas underwent an operation near the southern end of Gaza injuring 13 Israeli soldiers. "This is a far more complex attack than the incident in which Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured," said an Israeli spokesman, referring to a soldier captured in June 2006 by Palestinian fighters in a cross-border raid to use him as a bargaining chip to free Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

It seems that the only way out is for Israel to start talking to Hamas.

Yossi Sarid wrote in Haaretz, "The losses on the Palestinian side, mostly innocent civilians, will only increase solidarity and the willingness to sacrifice. Hamas rule will not be weakened; it certainly will not fall ... There is no choice but to talk to Hamas, indirectly or directly, and without preconditions. On the agenda: a cessation of hostilities and a total, long-term halt."

According to a survey published in Haaretz newspaper on Wednesday, February 27, most Israelis think their government should hold direct talks with Hamas to reach a ceasefire.

In conclusion to his recent visit to the Middle East, Carter, the architect of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, said, excluding Hamas "is just not working."

Abdelrahman Rashdan is a staff writer for the Muslim Affairs section of A graduate of the American University in Cairo, he holds a BA in political science with a specialization in political economy and international relations. Click here to reach him.

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