#Hamas: The Islamist Group Cracks Down On Social Media Activists | KUOW News and Information

#Hamas: The Islamist Group Cracks Down On Social Media Activists

Mar 17, 2016
Originally published on March 17, 2016 7:33 am

For Ayman Al-Aloul, the first night in prison was the worst.

"I was cold. I was sick," the now-free head of Al Arab Now news agency, said in an interview in his Gaza City office. "I was thinking of all the things I've done in my life, but I couldn't blame myself because I didn't know why I was there."

Aloul, 44, was arrested Jan. 3, taken from his home by some half-dozen Hamas police officers, who confiscated two laptops and his phone. He was held for eight days, and tells of being forced to hold still for long periods in uncomfortable positions and of being struck during interrogations.

Aloul says investigators wanted to know just one thing: Who was paying him to criticize Hamas on social media?

"I finally figured out my interrogator didn't know what a hashtag was," Aloul says now with a laugh. "Because he asked as if it was something you buy."

Activists in Gaza say social media campaigns critical of Hamas have gotten the attention of the armed Islamist group that has ruled Gaza for nearly a decade now. Ramzy Herzalla, 27, an activist who was arrested the same week as Aloul, says one campaign rallied against Hamas plans to charge a fee to enter a public park. The plans have not gone into effect.

Herzalla also cites criticism he posted protesting government destruction of a home to make way for a road. He says an official from the Ministry of Interior called and told him to take his posts down; they would put up their own response.

"If they didn't care about what we post, they wouldn't call us and react," Herzalla says.

What landed Aloul and Herzalla in prison was an issue important to every Gazan: a way in and out of the Gaza Strip.

There are two border crossings for travelers. One, called Erez, in the north, goes into Israel. Entry requires a permit from the Israeli military. It is mostly used by traders, Gazans approved for treatment in Israeli or Palestinian hospitals outside Gaza and, periodically, people allowed to visit Jerusalem for Friday prayers.

The other, near the town of Rafah on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, goes into Egypt. When this is open, it's a much easier crossing for Gazans, who travel to Cairo for health care, to fly to Europe or the U.S. for college, or to meet family who cannot enter the Gaza Strip.

Whether the Rafah crossing is open has always fluctuated with politics and security.

A January social media campaign called on Hamas to "hand over Rafah" – meaning hand control on the Gaza side to security forces from the Palestinian Authority, which has little power in Gaza right now.

The idea, long under discussion internationally, is that PA guards would be more acceptable to Egypt, and the Egyptians would open up the now mostly-closed border.

But those guards are under the command of Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president and head of Hamas' rival Palestinian party, Fatah. Hamas and Fatah have not reconciled since bloody battles in 2007, a year after Hamas won the last Palestinian parliamentary elections, in 2006. So for as long as this idea has been proposed, Hamas has balked.

In January, the social media campaign took off. Gazans say it seemed that many people shed fear of criticizing Hamas using their own names.

Herzalla, one of the leaders, said activists had a plan to steadily pressure Hamas.

"We start on Facebook. We get a big number of people seeing and following us. Then the next move was supposed to be street demonstrations. But they arrested us right before the street part."

For him, online activism is a way to try to hold Hamas accountable for the indignities of daily life in Gaza under its control which it fails to improve. Fame gained from his political activism led needy Gazans to ask Herzalla to use social media to help raise money to help them.

Herzalla has turned this into a project, recruiting friends to form the We Are Here To Make You Happy team. One day last week, they installed battery-operated lights, necessary during frequent power outages in Gaza, into the homes of 39 poor families.

And despite the arrest – his fourth, and longest – Herzalla keeps going. The charity, he says, "is a message to the government that it is supposed to be helping the people this way."

Aloul, though, has retreated somewhat. He no longer posts open criticism of Hamas, saying he's not strong enough to face down the militant group.

Both would like a better local government. Herzalla wants regime change. Aloul isn't so sure there is anything better.

Fatah, he believes is corrupt. The only other likely alternative he sees on the horizon is ISIS – much worse than Hamas, he says.

It's not about who governs, Aloul says, but how.

"I want a government that has the people's interest as priority," he says.

He is not expecting one in Gaza anytime soon.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We are in high election season here, but it's been a decade since Palestinians went to the polls. The last time, voters brought the militant Islamist group Hamas to power in Gaza. Since then, Gazans have lived through three wars with Israel. And while Gazans hold Israel responsible for most of their woes, there's also growing discontent with Hamas. NPR's Emily Harris has the stories of two Gaza activists who spoke out against Hamas and paid a steep price.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Five 20-somethings pile out of a car in a particularly poor and crowded Gaza neighborhood. One picks up a battery, another grabs some LED lights and some wire.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

HARRIS: They're all wearing vests with paper logos taped on that say in Arabic we are here to make you happy. They enter a small, dark home - three rooms for six people. Two Happy team members peel off old wires taped to the walls. They're installing a system to light this house during the daily power outages.

Test, click, click - it works. Group leader Ramzy Herzalla says the Make You Happy team is doing something Gaza's government should be.

RAMZY HERZALLA: (Through interpreter) This is a message to the government that it is supposed be helping the people this way. But they are not, so we are.

HARRIS: Herzalla is 27 years old. He has four kids. He's lucky to have a job. He works in a currency exchange office, but his real passion is politics. He started making satirical videos several years ago; next came critical commentary on Facebook. And as he became better known, he began to take on small, charitable causes, like installing battery-operated lights. But Herzalla's real goal is local regime change.

HERZALLA: (Through interpreter) To change the government, to have more young people involved in elections - actually, just having elections is our goal.

HARRIS: There are no elections on the horizon. So Herzalla uses social media campaigns to at least let Hamas know that some Gazans are not satisfied with their leadership. One recent social media campaign rallied against a Hamas plan to charge a fee to use a public park.

Another - a really popular one - demanded Hamas allow security forces from its rival Palestinian party, Fatah, to staff the border crossing with Egypt. The idea was the Fatah guards would be more acceptable to Egypt and the Egyptians would then open up the now mostly closed border - the only way out for many Gazans. Ramzy Herzalla said activists had a plan to steadily pressure Hamas.

HERZALLA: (Through interpreter) We start on Facebook. We get a big number of people seeing him following us. Then the next move was supposed to be street demonstrations, but they arrested us right before the street part.

HARRIS: He spent eight days in prison, blinded by a black hood much of the time, made to sit still in painful positions, interrogated and slapped around. Another activist in the campaign, a journalist named Ayman al-Aloul, was also arrested at the same time.

AYMAN AL-ALOUL: (Through interpreter) They took me to the military interrogator. It was always the same question - who is paying you to do this? I finally figured out my interrogator didn't know what a hashtag was because he asked as if it was something you buy.

HARRIS: When al-Aloul was released, he decided to stop posting about politics. He musters up his English to list subjects he will still comment on.

AL-ALOUL: Football, songs, models, kitchen, like this (laughter).

HARRIS: So they did shut you up.

AL-ALOUL: (Through interpreter) Oh, yes, they shut me. A reporter asked me this on TV. I said, I'm not strong enough to face down Hamas.

HARRIS: Hamas has the most guns in Gaza. Until that changes, both activists say little will really change on the ground. Despite his abuse at the hands of Hamas, al-Aloul doesn't want to get rid of the party right now because he sees nothing better. He thinks the main alternative, Fatah, is corrupt, and he believes ISIS is waiting in the wings on the other side.

AL-ALOUL: (Through interpreter) It's not about who governs. It's about how. I want a government that has the people's interest as priority.

HARRIS: Ayman al-Aloul is not expecting that anytime soon. Emily Harris, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.