BY RUTH MICHAELSON, The Guardian

LONDON - Shuffling around his family home in the hills around Ramallah, Khalil was nervous after his release from prison the day before. His mother was also terrified that he would be rearrested.

Khalil, a shy 21-year-old whose name has been changed, was arrested in a pre-dawn raid last October for his allegiance to Hamas. But when Israeli forces smashed through the door of his family home, they didn’t tell him why they were detaining him. He was imprisoned for six months without charge, in conditions he described as “unbelievable”.

“The Israelis are trying to restrain and terrorise us using these methods,” he said. “People are afraid. There is no freedom of speech … I’m scared to travel to any of the cities in the West Bank in case I get detained. Still, it feels like they could raid my house at any minute.”

Israeli officials, notably the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed to wipe out Hamas after the group staged an unprecedented raid on Israeli towns and kibbutzim last October, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping 250 more.

But as Israeli forces continue to pummel Gaza, claiming to be targeting the remaining Hamas brigades, they have also swept up thousands of Palestinians in raids in the West Bank. The majority, according to the Palestinian prisoners’ commission, are not aligned to Hamas. Even so, the raids and an increasing number of settler attacks have succeeded in creating a climate of fear that is undermining Hamas’s rivals Fatah, who operate the ruling Palestinian Authority, highlighting its inability to protect Palestinians and quietly fuelling Hamas’s popularity.

“These raids are generating distrust towards the Palestinian Authority but also fear of attack by them – they can’t protect us but at the same time they could attack us too,” said Khalil, pointing to the authority’s history of detaining members of Hamas in the West Bank.

For Khalil, the wave of Israeli raids have achieved little other than making people angry. A student at Birzeit university, he noted that almost all of the 24 leaders of the student council are either detained or fearing detention. The Hamas-backed bloc at Birzeit has swept the annual student elections in recent years, in a victory often regarded as a rare democratic bellwether for the entire West Bank.

Hamas views these successes as a clear sign of its grassroots support, in the absence of Palestinian Authority elections for almost two decades. But now fear of arrest, or in some cases rearrest, has smothered many open expressions of politics across the West Bank, where even casual discussions of support for Hamas can mean risking detention.

Polling conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah showed a rise in support for Hamas in the months after the October attack, followed by a drop in recent months. But what remained consistent was a dislike for the authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the search for political alternatives to his rule.

In a house in the village of Al Mughayyir, the blackened earth from a settler attack still visible on the road and cars outside, Ahmed was as eager to vent his anger at the Palestinian Authority as he was at the Israeli soldiers or settlers. His name has also been changed.

“The PA show up here with guns – why don’t they use them when the settlers attack? They only come here to collect taxes off our backs. They take everything, promise us protection and provide nothing. But if you try to protect yourself, you’ll be arrested by the PA before the Israelis,” he said, infuriated as he looked out over the village, where the sound of gunshots soon rung through the air.

“The truth is vividly clear: Hamas gives us a sliver of hope,” said Ahmed. “My support for Hamas is only increasing – what has been taken by force can only be reclaimed by force. Only Hamas can defend us from the settlers.”

“We are battling the Palestinian Authority – we get no benefit from them. They are clearly our enemy … there’s no point to their existence,” he said, adding that the authority had “stepped up” its own crackdown on Hamas supporters in recent months, hunting for weapons and ensnaring his father.

“People are too scared to even raise a banner,” he said. “You don’t dare to even mention Hamas, even having a beard is a felony. But as they try to push people away from Hamas, their support only grows.”

Qadura Fares, a longtime party grandee from Fatah who heads the authority’s prisoners and ex-prisoners commission, fretted that their perceived failures had emboldened their rivals. Al Mughayyir, he added, is a place where Fatah traditionally counts on a large pool of support, but he feared rising settler attacks, sometimes witnessed or even joined by Israeli soliders, were undermining the authority’s policy security cooperation with Israel, and the body itself.

“This continued security cooperation is disliked by the majority of Palestinians,” he said. “Add to that there’s corruption and the lack of elections meaning a lack of legitimacy, these add to the reasons that people opt for Hamas.”

Fares described attending political gatherings in Ramallah, the de-facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, where he was surprised to hear secular and Christian participants expressing support for Hamas.

“Hamas’s popularity in the West Bank has clearly risen,” he said, adding: “One of our primary mistakes is the detention of Hamas members and it needs to stop.”

At the heart of Fares’s concerns was that Fatah’s decision three decades ago to enter into peace negotiations with Israel had ultimately done little to help the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Fares described the results as “less than zero … we need to make some deep changes and reassess our national message as Fatah to show we are serious about change, and maybe people will give us a chance”, he said.

“Palestinians now believe more in Hamas’s agenda, that resistance to the occupation is the only possible strategy,” he said. But, he added: “If the Palestinian people had their own state and we felt free, I think Hamas would return back to being a minor party.”

 

 

 

Banners

Videos