What does the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas do when it is not firing rockets at Israel or sending Palestinians to clash with Israeli soldiers along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel? It sends its security officers to arrest, interrogate, intimidate and harass anyone who dares to criticize Hamas. Pictured: Palestinians in Gaza prepare to attack Israeli soldiers at the border fence with Israel on May 14, 2018. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
What does the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas do when it is not firing rockets at Israel or sending Palestinians to clash with Israeli soldiers along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel? It sends its security officers to arrest, interrogate, intimidate and harass anyone who dares to criticize Hamas.
It is not as if anyone was expecting Hamas to act differently. The terms democracy and freedom of expression have never been in Hamas's dictionary. For Hamas, it is either you are with us or you are against us. There is no third option for Palestinians living under Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip, even for those who were previously associated with Hamas, but later changed their minds and dared to express a different opinion or, worse, criticize the Islamist movement.
In the past week alone, Hamas has arrested two Palestinian academics on suspicion that they voiced criticism of the group: professor of biology Salah Jadallah and writer Khader Mihjez.
Jadallah was arrested earlier this week after he posted a comment on Facebook in which he accused the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip of enjoying a comfortable life while Palestinians were wallowing in poverty and misery. In the December 19 post, he wrote: "It's a life of hypocrisy, lies and quackery when an official lives in luxury while his people are overstrained and impoverished." He went on to accuse the Hamas officials of stealing funds earmarked for the people in order to build villas and mansions for themselves.
On December 26, Jadallah's son, Mohammed, said that Hamas ordered his father remanded into custody and refused to release him on bail. "My father criticized corruption in general and was not talking about a specific person or family," the son said.
This was not the first time that Prof. Jadallah found himself in trouble because of his public criticism of Hamas. In March 2016, he was suspended from his job at the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip because of Facebook comments criticizing Hamas and the university administration.
The professor, according to Palestinian sources, was once considered a prominent figure in Hamas -- probably why Hamas takes him seriously. As someone who grew up in Hamas, he knows more than anyone else about the conduct of the group's top brass. Far from being an outsider or a political rival, Jadallah is the ultimate Hamas insider.
The second man, Mihjez, was detained by Hamas for several hours on December 26 -- apparently for criticizing the arrest of Jadallah. In one Facebook post, Mihjez asked: "What is the academic degree that the man who is interrogating Prof Salah Jadallah hold?" Because of this rhetorical question, Hamas summoned Mihjez for several hours of interrogation.
Two years ago, Mihjez was also arrested by Hamas after he wrote a series of articles in which he explained why he no longer supported the Muslim Brotherhood organization. Notably, Hamas is an offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood.
A Gaza-based group called the Journalists Forum for Human Rights condemned the Hamas measures against Jadallah and Mihjez as a "violation of freedom of expression" and called on Hamas to explain why its men were harassing prominent figures in the Gaza Strip.
Commenting on the arrest of Jadallah, Hassan Asfour, a former Palestinian Authority (PA) cabinet minister and columnist, said that most Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip shared the professor's criticism of the Hamas leadership, but were afraid to speak out:
"Professor Jadallah did not use a sword or bullets. What he said was not a secret. According to which logic was he taken away at night and thrown in detention centers that carry several names? What kind of message of terror is Hamas trying to impose on the Gaza Strip? Hamas is panicking, and that's why it won't allow any form of criticism of its policies. Intellectual repression and the confiscation of freedom of opinion, as well as preventing the exposure of corruption, is more dangerous to the society than any disease."
Another Palestinian columnist, Sami Fuda, also denounced the Hamas crackdown on its critics:
"Apparently, freedom of expression is unacceptable to the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip... The policy of intimidating and imprisoning writers will not deter them and is completely ineffective and unacceptable."
While these few Palestinians have expressed concern over Hamas's effort to silence its critics, international human rights organizations, including some that operate in the Gaza Strip, continue to turn a blind eye to this assault on public freedoms. They are either afraid of Hamas, or they do not give a damn about human rights violations unless they can find a way of pointing an accusatory finger at Israel. The silence of the international community toward human rights violations in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip allows the Islamist group to continue its policy of intimidation against its critics.
The Hamas measures against its critics are aimed at preventing Palestinians and the rest of the world from learning about the group's corrupt dictatorship. Hamas leaders want to continue living the good life while their people are facing devastating living conditions. The millions of dollars of Qatari cash that were delivered to Hamas in the past few weeks have further emboldened the group, giving it carte blanche to intimidate its critics.
Hamas is more interested in muzzling its critics than improving the lives of its people. Hamas leaders are more interested in padding their own bank accounts than in grappling with the problems of unemployment. Hamas is prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a rally marking the 31st anniversary of its founding, but says it cannot afford to provide financial aid to impoverished Palestinians. Meanwhile, any Palestinians who dare to ask Hamas the wrong questions will find themselves behind bars.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.