+972 Magazine / February 24, 2022
Young people from besieged Gaza are connecting with fellow Palestinians on Twitter to share their discontent and experiences of life under Hamas rule.
Almost every night for the past few weeks, hundreds of young Palestinians from Gaza have been meeting in a Twitter Space under the hashtag “hijacked Gaza,” in which they have the opportunity to criticize both the Hamas government under which they live, as well as Israel’s 15-year siege on the strip. The conversations are broadcast live, unrecorded, and often go into the night.
The rules in the Space — Twitter’s audio chat-room platform, launched in May 2021 — are simple. Only one person can speak at a time, and the several hundred participants in the room can only listen. Any user can join the conversation and, if they so desire, raise their hand to ask the chat-room hosts for permission to chime in. They are mostly members of Gaza’s younger generation, who have scant memories of a Gaza before Hamas rule and the suffocating Israeli siege which began in 2007.
Here, for example, is H., a young man in his 20’s, speaking from his Gaza bedroom to an audience of 284 people last Tuesday: “I understand that some of the young men and women here have been threatened. I’m not surprised. This approach, of threats and suppression by Hamas, is something we’ve gotten used to after 15 years. My heart is with you.”
He continued: “Why are we saying Gaza’s been hijacked? Because Gaza is a disaster area. Because there isn’t anyone on this chat who doesn’t know someone who’s migrated to Turkey to sell his organs to help his parents. Because Hamas glorifies itself as the resistance to the occupation, but they sit in their palaces with their Qatari passports while we pay the price. Because we’ve been through four horrific wars and accomplished nothing, neither on the human level nor on the national level.
“None of us young people actually voted for Hamas. Our parents might have, back in 2006, but it’s been 16 years now and no new elections. They’ve oppressed the people. I’m sorry I’m getting emotional here, but our generation is educated. Ninety percent of us are university graduates. Everyone is unemployed and everyone is dreaming about leaving. We’re tired of seeing our children die time and time again in the Greek and Turkish seas.”
- was followed by N., also from Gaza, also in his 20’s. “Everyone is preoccupied with escaping Gaza,” he said. “A whole generation of talented people. We’ve got 10 universities here, but people with the energy and ideas to bring change to Gaza tend to give up and disappear somewhere else. Why? Because our economy can’t function under siege. Because there’s no money to live, because Hamas keeps hiking the taxes and keeping the money for themselves.”
Emigration is a recurring theme in the chatrooms. “Most of those escaping Gaza go to Turkey,” said A., a student activist. Compared to other countries, Turkey makes it relatively easy for Gaza residents to acquire immigration visas.
Israel has maintained a tight blockade over Gaza since 2007, and, just as in the West Bank, has prevented the construction of and access to functioning seaports and airports. So to reach Turkey, Palestinians from Gaza need to traverse a third country, Egypt, which has strict entry requirements of its own. If you don’t meet them — and sometimes, even if you do — the journey involves paying a bribe at the Rafah border crossing, a long and dangerous journey to Cairo, and then a flight to Istanbul. The costs average out at NIS 4,000 ($1,230), or about six months’ worth of average wages in the strip.
In the chatrooms, participants tearfully recounted the stories of friends who made it to Turkey but were imprisoned or drowned when they tried to smuggle themselves into Europe, chaperoned by human traffickers in barely seaworthy boats.
Israelis don’t tend to think of Palestinians as part of the contemporary refugee crisis, but according to the UN, in 2019 Palestinians were the national group that traversed the smuggling routes from Turkey to Greece across the Mediterranean in the third highest numbers (after Syrians and Afghans).
One participant in the chatroom claimed that 100,000 young people left Gaza in the past few years alone. Others cited similar numbers. There is no verifiable data on the scope of emigration, but according to Israeli reports, some 35,000 people left Gaza in 2018, never to return. According to Palestinian academics and researchers in Gaza, this number more than doubled in 2019, to some 80,000 people. Most of the emigrants are educated young people, including doctors and engineers, who can no longer live in the besieged, impoverished Strip. “It’s a new Nakba,” said A., from Shuja’iyya, in the Twitter Space.
The conversations frequently dwelled on the differences and similarities between the lives of young people in Gaza and in the West Bank. “West Bank Palestinians don’t emigrate to Europe because they can work in Israel,” said A., a 25-year-old Gaza resident.
Gaza is completely cut off from Israel, most recently by a gargantuan fortified wall extending deep underground, erected by the Israeli Defense Ministry at the cost of billions. The border with the West Bank, conversely, remains relatively porous, allowing young people to enter Israel to work as menial laborers: whether with a permit issued by the Israeli military’s Civil Administration or through gaps and holes in the separation wall, which Israel keeps open.
W., a feminist activist from Ramallah, sought to disabuse her Gaza listeners of any envy toward their West Bank peers. “It’s a bit complicated to ask you, who’ve lived under a blockade for 15 years, to raise your heads and look a bit further beyond the walls, but let me tell you: the situation in the West Bank is not much better. Because what keeps unemployment here at bay is working for the settlements. And I don’t think you’d want that.”
She continued: “Half of our young people work in Israel. People get married young just to meet the family status criteria with the Shin Bet and get a permit. So yeah, Hamas has hijacked Gaza. But the West Bank is also hijacked. All of Palestine is hijacked. We need to make sure our discourse here doesn’t legitimize the occupation.”
A participant from Gaza replied: “Our suffering is complex. It begins with the occupation. That’s the basis. That much is clear to everyone here. But I don’t think the occupation is the reason for the gap we have today between the Hamas leadership with its millions, and the majority of people in Gaza who exist below the poverty line. It wasn’t the occupation that urged young people to go protest at the fence and then left them without rehabilitation and medical support after they had their legs shot off. So yes, we are also demanding accountability from our local leadership.”
‘Witness resistance, dignity, and working 12 hours for 15 shekels’
Many Palestinians have spoken out against the hashtag and these meetings on social media. They defended Hamas for a variety of reasons, the most common one being the organization’s continuing military activity against Israel. One Palestinian living in Jordan tweeted: “They hijacked Gaza and made it into a force of the resistance — an army of 8,000 challenging one of the strongest superpowers in the world. They hijacked Gaza and brought about the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners. They hijacked Gaza and now it can bomb Tel Aviv, and it doesn’t subscribe to security coordination [with Israel, in contrast to PA security forces in the West Bank].”
Many others on Twitter voiced similar sentiments. A clip featuring one of the campaign organizers criticizing the Hamas military wing commander, Mohammed Deif, was leaked from the Space conversation and went viral, provoking a ferocious backlash.
Supporters of the campaign pushed back on criticism by arguing that their opponents simply haven’t had a direct experience of Hamas’s rule. “Most of the campaign’s critics are from the West Bank,” a woman from Gaza tweeted. “They’re from the other side of the homeland and they have a very flat, romanticized vision of Gaza. All rockets and resistance.”
Polls have shown Hamas popularity skyrocketing in the West Bank and in Jerusalem in recent years, especially after the war in May. Around 53 percent of the Palestinians surveyed said they wanted Hamas to lead the entire Palestinian nation, compared to 14 percent who supported Fatah led by President Mahmoud Abbas. When asked whether negotiations or armed struggle is more likely to end the occupation, a majority chose the latter.
A senior source in Fatah close to Abbas, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to being unauthorized to officially speak to the media, told +972 that “we are losing support because the public doesn’t believe in our path anymore. We promised them negotiations would end the occupation. This didn’t happen. Israel refused. So they keep asking us: why are you still collaborating with the Shin Bet?”
“People in the West Bank support Hamas as a backlash against the Palestinian Authority, not as an ideological statement”, said A., a Ramallah-based journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns of professional repercussions. “Most young people are raising green flags, but that’s not necessarily because they support Islamist principles, but rather because this is the only viable alternative to the PA, which serves the occupation. They see Abbas meeting [Israeli Defense Minister] Benny Gantz and preserving the status quo, but they don’t see senior PA officials lifting a finger when new settlement outposts are being set up. The army keeps killing Palestinians and the occupation keeps getting more entrenched.”
Palestinians in Gaza, however, have a different and perhaps more nuanced perspective on Hamas. “For us they’re not just a resistance movement but also the government: the cops you meet on the street, school principals, legislators, judges,” a woman from Gaza said in a Twitter Space. Another resident of Gaza tweeted: “Dear West Bank resident opposing our campaign and blindly following Hamas: come to Gaza and witness resistance, national dignity, and working 12 hours for 15 shekels [just over $4.5].”
A journalist from Gaza told me in a phone interview last week she thought that if elections were held today, most young people in Gaza would vote against Hamas and most young people in the West Bank would vote for it. Many in Gaza, she said, “are hungry for change and they were very angry when Abbas called off the elections. But young people do distinguish between Hamas’s military wing, which enjoys considerable sympathy, and the Hamas government, which most people oppose.”
The Palestinian parliamentary elections, scheduled for this past June, were called off in April. Abbas claimed this was because Israel would not allow East Jerusalem residents to vote, but many speculated the real reason was his fear of seeing his slate lose seats to Hamas, as in the seminal elections in 2006.
On Twitter, one participant voiced regret that the Palestinians had no worthy leaders remaining. She said that all leaders were either corrupt, dead, or in prison. “The people are fragmented. The occupation and the blockade split us up geographically. There’s no true leadership. People in Gaza live the suffering in Gaza, and people in the West Bank live the suffering brought on by the West Bank rulers. Not a single person doesn’t think and rethink a hundred times before they speak out, fearing that if the local ruler dislikes what they have to say they’ll be beaten up, or lose their salary.”
A poll conducted in October 2021 found that if presidential elections were held today, with the contenders being Mahmoud Abbas for the PA, prominent Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, and the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, Barghouti would win 51 percent of the vote, Haniyeh would win 30 percent, and Abbas would get a mere 16 percent.
‘Poverty affects everything, even love’
Contrary to widespread assumptions, Israel’s blockade of Gaza since 2007 was not an inevitable defensive response to the rise of Hamas, but rather the escalation of a long-standing policy aimed at driving wedges between Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The policy is driven by two chief considerations: a demographic one, aimed at preventing Gaza’s two million Palestinians from settling in the West Bank or in Jerusalem; and a political one, aimed at preventing the unification of the Palestinian national space, which would expedite the establishment of a Palestinian space.
The lack of any security justification for continuing the blockade — and, in fact, a clear security justification for lifting it — could be gleaned in the words of Shlomo Tzaban, commander of the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza, who said last year: “Gaza needs to be opened up at once. If this happens there won’t be terror attacks and Hamas will grow weaker.”
The forced and artificial separation of Gaza from the rest of the country is devastating, for the simple reason that Gaza is an inseparable part of the space, both Palestinian and Israeli. More than 30 percent of Palestinians in Gaza have relatives in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, or in Palestinian cities inside Israel.
Most young Gazans taking part in the Twitter Space confessed they have never left the strip. The movement of both people and goods is extremely restricted. Before the blockade, Gaza’s economy relied on trade with the West Bank and Israel, and on day laborers going to work in Israel. The separation policy between the three areas saw this economy implode. Only one in three young people in Gaza have work, and in most cases the work pays for sustenance only.
“I studied medicine but now I’m a merchant”, P. told his listeners on a Twitter Space. “I went to Al-Azhar University’s medical school,” said N. “420 people graduated in my class, but only 70 got their diplomas, because the rest owed too much money to the university.” Someone identified only as Abu Said chimed in: “Poverty affects everything, even love. Young people who have no money can’t afford to love, because they can’t get married or build a home. It’s a widespread phenomenon in Gaza.”
In a similar vein, many participants on the Twitter Space claimed Hamas is exacerbating the economic crisis because senior officials pocket the aid money meant for the poorest — “They traffic in Gazans’ suffering” — and overtax basic commodities — “It’s not the occupation that’s raking in $30 million a month in tobacco taxes.”
Campaign critics charge organizers with enjoying the support of the Palestinian Authority and/or Israeli security services. The campaign’s key instigators are five Palestinians who emigrated from Gaza to Europe in recent years. But most participants in the Twitter Space — some 300 to 600 people every evening — live in Gaza and speak from the ground.
The organizers say that so far, Hamas has not arrested anyone involved in the campaign, but participants reported threats and attempts to warn them against taking part in the discussions. As one speaker said, “Every evening someone else starts a Space. It’s a collective action. They can’t stop it.”
Yuval Abraham is a journalist and activist based in Jerusalem