Following one of the worst periods of violence in Gaza since the 2014 war, what has been the role of Hamas in the bloodshed? Did the group deliberately provoke Israel? Tim Sebastian meets a senior Hamas official.
After 140 people were killed and more than 13,000 injured during the "Great March of Return" demonstrations in Gaza, a leading Hamas figure told DW the extent of the violence "was not expected to be like this."
Osama Hamdan, Lebanon's Hamas representative, said: "It was a civilian protest. It was an unarmed protest. The people who were killed, women, children, old people, all what they wanted is to go home (…). They want to return to their homeland."
Hamas, or its military wing, is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the US, the EU, the UK, as well as other states. It is often accused of provoking Israel with little thought for the safety of Palestinians, a charge which Hamdan denied: "Do you think that we are happy of losing our boys, children, girls, daughters, wives?"
Hamas: 'Uproot the borders, pluck out their hearts'
Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yehya Al-Sinwar, spoke at a protest encampment to praise those who turned out to confront the "enemy who besieges us." He said the demonstrations would continue, telling the crowds: "We will uproot the borders, we will pluck out their hearts, and we will pray in Jerusalem."
Hamdan defended the message speaking to DW’s Conflict Zone: "For the Palestinians, it's completely a peaceful message to go to pray in Al-Aqsa mosque, to take back their occupied lands, to liberate them. (…) It wasn't a message of violence. It was a clear message from the Palestinian nation that we want our rights back."
Gaza 'on the verge of collapse'
Nikolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, warned that recent hostilities marked the most serious escalation since the 2014 conflict between Hamas and Israel, saying Gaza was on the verge of collapse. "Hamas, which controls Gaza, must not use the protests as cover to attempt to place bombs at the fence and create provocations; its operatives must not hide among the demonstrators and risk the lives of civilians," Mladenov said.
Asked whether Hamas really is using the demonstrations to provoke Israel, Hamdan said: "No one brought bombs, no militants hide among the people. All the killed people were civilians. I dare anyone to say that there was one militant [with] the people."
Hamdan cited the death of Razan Najjar, a 21-year-old nurse who was shot while volunteering at the Gaza border earlier in June. The case sparked international outrage. "The 50 Palestinians who were killed from Hamas, they were not militant, and the Israelis know that. Razan Al-Najarwas was not a militant, she was a nurse and she was helping the injured people when she was shot in the back," Hamdan said.
Human rights and press freedom in Gaza
But Hamas's own human rights record is problematic. Human Rights Watch found that "Hamas has supported the protests in Gaza, where its control is palpable. Criticism of Hamas rule can be punishable by arrest and torture."
A report by the UN Special Rapporteur said the "Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas arrested activists who criticized their leaders, security forces, or policies, and mistreated and tortured some in their custody." The Independent Commission for Human Rights in Palestine (ICHR) received 205 complaints of torture and ill-treatment by PA security forces and 193 such complaints against Hamas security forces as of October 31, 2017.
When confronted with these cases of torture, Hamdan said "most of those claims were not true" and added: "If something wrong was done we say we are sorry, we punish the people who did that."
The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) documented 35 press freedom violations by Palestinian authorities in Gaza during 2017, including eight arrests, several detentions and interrogations, and at least four physical attacks.
Future of Gaza
The UN said little progress has been made to improve the humanitarian situation: "After ten years of blockade, the population of Gaza is in a particularly vulnerable position, with as much as 70 percent of the population dependent upon some form of humanitarian assistance. (…) The health and humanitarian crisis in Gaza has become acute, bordering on a human calamity."
But the Hamas official rejected that Gaza was on the point of collapse: "Gaza will not collapse. The Israelis are destroying the Palestinian's lives every day not only in Gaza, in the West Bank, and in Jerusalem. So don't say that the Palestinians are to blame."