BY FARES AKRAM
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinian journalist Ayman al-Aloul frequently writes about the hardships of life in the Gaza Strip, and is one of the few voices willing to publicly criticize the rule of the Islamic Hamas movement.
But after nine days in jail, al-Aloul says he won’t be writing about politics anymore. He said a painful experience that included beatings and being forced to sit uncomfortably in a tiny chair has made him a “new man” and that he will now focus on less controversial topics like sports, food, literature and fashion.
“I’ve decided not to talk about the general situation anymore,” al-Aloul said in an interview at his home Tuesday, a day after he was released. “The experience I went through was very difficult.”
Al-Aloul’s experience is part of a crackdown by Hamas at a time when the continuing miseries of life in Gaza appear to be driving its population toward more open dissent. Critics have grown bolder on social media sites, and attempts by Hamas to impose new taxes have triggered rare public protests.
Al-Aloul said his new reticence would not affect his work as a reporter for an Iraqi TV station, which he described as straight news reporting and not “opinion-making.”
It was his personal social media activity that drew attention. In recent months, he wrote under a popular hashtag urging Hamas to withdraw from the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt. Like many Palestinians, he believes that Egypt has shuttered Rafah because it doesn’t want to deal with Hamas, and proposes letting the Western-backed Palestinian Authority manage the crossing.
He also published pictures of people looking for leftover food in garbage containers, quoted business owners angry over increased taxes and blamed Gaza authorities for prolonged power blackouts.
On Jan. 3, Hamas forces arrested him and another outspoken critic, Ramzi Herzallah, in their homes in Gaza City. During his detention, al-Aloul said he was repeatedly slapped on the face by his interrogators and twice sent to a room known euphemistically as “the bus.” He described it as a room equipped with children’s chairs, where detainees are blindfolded and forced to sit for an entire day.
“They think that my posts on Facebook harm the Gaza government,” he said. “They considered criticizing the government to be criticism of ‘the resistance’ and they accused me of harming the revolutionary unity,” al-Aloul said.
Herzallah, also released Monday, said he too experienced “the bus,” but declined to comment further. Hamas’ Interior Ministry declined comment.
Hamas, an Islamist movement pledged to Israel’s destruction, seized Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Despite being branded a terrorist group by Israel and the West, and enduring three wars with Israel and an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, it has clung to power.
The 2014 war, precipitated by a string of events that included heavy rocket fire into Israel, was especially devastating. More than 2,100 Gazans, including hundreds of civilians, were killed, and some 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Seventy-two people, including six civilians, were killed on the Israeli side.
Only a tiny fraction of affected homes have been rebuilt. Electricity is available for as little as three hours a day, and gas for heating and cooking is rationed. The power shortage stems from infighting between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which coordinates fuel purchases from Israel.
The World Bank estimates Gaza’s unemployment at 43 percent. Gaza’s 1.8 million people have few options at home or abroad since few people can leave. Egypt opened the Rafah crossing, the main exit point for Gazans traveling abroad, for just 21 days in 2015.
Egypt’s relationship with Hamas has worsened since the 2013 overthrow of then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ ideological counterpart. Israel allows humanitarian cases to cross through its border, but this is a small fraction of the people waiting to leave.
While Hamas seems still firmly in power, it has raised taxes recently to shore up shaky finances that have left it unable to pay its 40,000 employees. This has pushed up the price of cigarettes by about 10 percent, and brought a $1,000 annual licensing fee upon cafes, restaurants and hotels.
The taxes have triggered unusual public anger.
Last month, fruit and vegetable importers briefly suspended deliveries. Last week, dozens of residents of the Jabaliya refugee camp took to the streets to protest a lengthy power cut. And on Tuesday, dozens of merchants closed their shops and held a rare public demonstration in the Nusseirat refugee camp to protest a new 16 percent sales tax.
“We tell the government and decision makers … Feel the people who hardly live,” said clothing store owner Mohammed Jahjouh, who predicts the protests will grow.
A poll published last month found that 41 percent of Gazans want to emigrate, compared to 24 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank. The survey, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, questioned 1,270 people and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Hamas officials brush off the criticism and accuse Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority of conspiring to punish it.
Ziad al-Zaza, a senior Hamas leader, said the turmoil shaking the Middle East will help his movement in the long run.
“We are able to … clear the way through our piercing vision and reading of the incidents,” he said in a recent interview.
Human rights groups have accused Hamas of intimidating or torturing critics and opponents in the past, a charge it denies. Akram Sourani, a local satirist, said the latest arrests might succeed in dampening the criticism.
“Unfortunately, this right has become an issue of debate among the writers. ‘Shall I write or not? Shall I express or not?'” said Sourani, who was himself summoned in December by Hamas police. “I think we must continue to speak out.”
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