Both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, even during the difficult time of a pandemic, do not hesitate to pursue their repressive measures against anyone who dares to speak out against financial and administrative corruption, or expresses views that annoy any Palestinian leaders. Pictured: A PA policeman mans a checkpoint at the entrance to Hebron ahead of a "mandatory quarantine," on March 22. (Photo by Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images)
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, says it has taken drastic steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among the two million Palestinians living under its rule.
On March 22, the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health announced the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Gaza Strip: two Palestinians who returned from a visit to Pakistan. The ministry said the two patients were placed in quarantine in a field hospital near Gaza's border with Egypt.
The ministry also announced the suspension of Friday prayers in all mosques throughout the Gaza Strip and the closure of wedding halls, restaurants and coffee shops.
The Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers, however, still seem to have time to continue their repressive measures against Palestinians, despite increased fears that more cases of coronavirus might be detected there.
On March 13, Hamas security forces arrested Palestinian writer Abdullah Abu Sharekh for Facebook posts in which he criticized Hamas's handling of a fire that broke out in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. In the fire, which was caused by an explosion of natural gas tanks in the camp's central market, 22 Palestinians were killed and more than 80 injured.
In one of the posts, Abu Sharekh wrote, addressing the leaders of Hamas:
"The victims of the fire in Nuseirat do not want Hamas to pay for their dead. The people want only one thing from Hamas: to quit and leave the Gaza Strip as any failed leader in a democratic country that values human life would do. Since 2007, Palestinian intellectuals in the Gaza Strip have felt that their lives are not as valuable as those of the rats or cockroaches in the sewer systems."
On March 18, Hamas ordered Abu Sharekh remanded into custody for an additional 15 days on charges of "spreading rumors and harming the social fabric" of Palestinian society. A spokesman for the Hamas security forces said that Abu Sharekh was arrested for "publishing rumors and lies on social media that cause harm to public interests and create confusion among the people."
The latest arrest, however, which came as Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were taking precautionary measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, triggered a wave of protests by several Palestinian political activists and factions, as well as human rights organizations.
Palestinian writer Akram Atallah launched an online campaign to demand the release of Abu Sharekh and other Palestinians detained by Hamas for expressing their views.
Hamas's rivals in the Palestinian ruling faction, Fatah, condemned the arrest of Abu Sharekh and said some of its members in the Gaza Strip have also been detained by Hamas in the past few days. Fatah noted that the Hamas security crackdown came "during critical and complicated circumstances in which the coronavirus is posing a threat to all human beings."
Instead of heeding the calls to release the writer and refrain from human rights violations, Hamas, on March 21, arrested the Palestinian cartoonist Ismail el-Bozom for protesting the arrest of Abu Sharekh.
El-Bozom was arrested hours after he had posted a comment on Facebook in which he wondered whether the Qatari envoy to the Gaza Strip, Mohammed al-Emadi, would intervene to secure the release of Abu Sharekh.
The Qatari envoy, who heads the Qatari Committee for the Reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, has been delivering millions of dollars in cash to the Gaza Strip over the past year as part of an effort to improve the living conditions of Palestinians living there.
In el-Bozom's Facebook post, which landed him in prison, he wrote about the arrest of Abu Sharekh: "If the Palestinian factions and human rights organizations are not able to secure the release of Abu Sharekh, who is? Perhaps al-Emadi has more influence than all of them."
The crackdown on writers and political opponents in the Gaza Strip came as Hamas's military wing, Izaddin al-Qassam, issued a warning to Israel to release Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons. "The life and safety of the Palestinian prisoners is a red line and we hold the Zionist occupation fully responsible for their well-being," said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Izaddin al-Qassam.
Hamas is claiming that it is worried about the safety of the Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, often for multiple murders, while its own prisons in the Gaza Strip are full of Palestinians whose only crime is that they dared to criticize the Hamas leadership or its policies.
Did Hamas forget that just last month another Palestinian, Ahmed al-Sa'afeen, 39, died shortly after he was detained for his alleged affiliation with Fatah?
Since its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip thirteen years ago, Hamas has done nothing to improve the living conditions of its people. Instead of directing millions of dollars to building hospitals or improving healthcare, Hamas has for the past few years invested approximately $150 million in rebuilding its tunnel infrastructure, and has diverted dual-use construction materials such as concrete, steel, and wood, which could have gone to rebuilding Gaza's civilian infrastructure.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), on Israel's east, is also continuing to arrest its political opponents in the West Bank (of the Jordan River) despite the growing number of confirmed coronavirus cases there.
Hours after PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced a 30-day state of emergency to prevent the spread of the virus, his security forces arrested Hussam Khader, a senior Fatah official and outspoken critic of the Palestinian leadership.
The PA security forces have also continued their crackdown on university students and political activists. The most recent detainees are Mohammed Atta, a student at Al-Quds University, and As'ad Qabajah, who are known for their affiliation with Hamas. According to Palestinian sources, 50 Palestinians are being held in PA prisons in the West Bank because of their affiliation with Hamas and other opposition groups.
The PA has, in addition, joined Hamas in demanding that Israel release Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. As for prisoners held in Palestinian prisons, the PA, like Hamas, seems to have no worries about their safety.
Both the PA and Hamas, even during the difficult time of a pandemic, as they have made abundantly clear, do not hesitate to pursue their repressive measures against anyone who dares to speak out against financial and administrative corruption, or expresses views that annoy any Palestinian leaders.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.