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Why Is Hamas Calling for Intifada in the West Bank, But Not in Gaza?

"We are for the intifada, but keep it in the West Bank not here in Gaza," a senior Hamas advisor told VICE News. Yet not all Gazans — especially hundreds of frustrated young men — would agree.

by Harriet Salem
Oct 26 2015, 4:39pm

Photo by Mohammed Saber/EPA

Dr. Yehla Mahmoud Herbawi describes his 18-year-old son Ahmed as a highly intelligent but sometimes tempestuous teenager who "always knew his own mind." Yet despite some adolescent difficulties, Mahmoud had high hopes for his son. Ahmed was in his second year of studying journalism at university and Mahmoud promised one day, when his firstborn married, he would gift him a house. That day, however, never came.

At around 11am on October 9, Ahmed told his mother he was planning to attend a protest on Gaza's eastern border with Israel. Knowing it was dangerous Mahmoud at first forbade his son from going, but then relented, knowing that headstrong Ahmed would go anyway. "His mother gave him five shekels [$1.28] for a taxi and I gave him money for some food. We prayed together at the mosque and I told him: 'Eat well, because I am worried that you will not come back.' Then he left."

A few hours later Ahmed's parents were watching television when news broke that someone had been seriously wounded during clashes at the border. "I knew in my heart straight away it was him and that he was dead," Mahmoud told VICE News, while adjusting his glasses. "He was the first Gazan martyr of this intifada." In the family's living room a larger-than-life portrait shows Ahmed, still an acne freckled youth, super-imposed against Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque.

Related: In Photos: Riding Along With Medics on the Frontline of Clashes in the West Bank

Over the last month, a wave of violence has rocked Israel and the Palestinian territories. A series of stabbing, shooting, and vehicular attacks carried out by Palestinians have killed 10 Israelis and wounded scores more. Around half of the Palestinian assailants, including failed attackers, have been shot and killed by soldiers, police, or armed civilians at the scene. Another 21 Palestinian youths have been gunned down during clashes with Israeli security forces. Of those, 13 — more than half — have died at Gaza's border.

Palestinians flash V-signs as they pose with Molotov cocktails during clashes with Israeli troops at Erez crossing on October 13. (Photo by Mohammed Saber/EPA)

The same day that Ahmed headed to the border, Hamas, the ruling party in the war-battered Gaza Strip, became the first Palestinian faction to "call" the unrest as an intifada and directly endorse Gazans joining it. In a broadcast aired on Al Jazeera and a Hamas-affiliated channel during Friday prayers, Ismail Haniyeh, one of the group's most senior officials, implored Gazans to "deepen and strengthen the... battle for Jerusalem and the blessed intifada."

It was perhaps Haniyeh's words that finally stirred Ahmed into action. After his death Mahmoud found his son had been using Facebook and Twitter to vent his frustrations. "There was a lot of anger [in his posts], against Israel, against Hamas... He was angry about the situation here, the situation in Jerusalem. That nothing was being done."

It was not just Ahmed who was galvanized by Haniyeh's words. On October 9, hundreds of Palestinian youths descended on the Gazan side of Erez — the main crossing point between the strip and Israel — hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at soldiers positioned on the other side, before attempting to breach the border fence. 

'The intifada, yes, we are for the intifada, but keep it in the West Bank not here in Gaza'

In total eight Palestinians, including Ahmed, were shot dead by Israeli security forces and near 100 more were injured in clashes. Later that evening militants fired two rockets over the border. The Israeli response, a late-night airstrike, killed a pregnant woman and her two-year-old daughter.

Yet despite the bloodshed on the Palestinian side, the next day Hamas did not call for more clashes or threaten to renew the conflict with Israel. Instead the group's spokesperson, Sami Abu Zuhri, railed against an "escalation" and warned "the occupation continuing this foolishness." While the overt message was for Israel to stand down, his statement also contained a message for the domestic audience — Hamas could not afford escalation in the strip either.

Related: 'Blocking the Street Will Not Stop the Blood': Violence Continues Despite Israel's Security Clampdown

Both Gazans and Hamas are still reeling from a bloody 51-day summer war with Israel in 2014. The fighting claimed more than 2,200 lives, including around 1,500 civilian casualties. Large segments of the 223-square-mile Gaza Strip are still little more than rubble. Of the 9,000 homes "completely destroyed" during the war, only one has been completely rebuilt, and tens of thousands of people remain internally displaced.

The flow of goods and people in and out of the strip still tightly controlled by Israel and Egypt, and a World Bank report in May declared Gaza's economy to be on the "brink of collapse," with a 43 percent unemployment rate — the highest in the world. Despite Hamas' self-declared victory in the war a recent poll found only 42 percent of Gazans shared that notion, while 60 percent said they were dissatisfied with the outcome of the fighting when human and material losses were taken into consideration.

Palestinians take cover from Israeli tear gas during clashes at the Erez crossing on October 13. (Photo by Mohammed Saber/EPA)

Yet despite significant frustration resulting from the war, the same survey also found a high level of support for renewing the conflict. In Gaza 61 percent of respondents said they supported an "armed intifada" compared to 54 percent in the West Bank, and nearly 70 percent said they said supported resuming rocket fire into Israel if the blockade of the Strip was not lifted.

Indeed, since April Palestinian militant groups in Gaza have launched at least a dozen rockets into Israel. A group affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for most of them, having drawn dozens of new recruits from Hamas, and other well-established "mainstream" factions in the strip.

Related: Masked Youths Clash With Israeli Soldiers Following Funeral of West Bank Teenager

In his cozy 13th-floor office in Gaza City's most upscale neighborhood, Ahmed Yousef, a senior advisory figure to Hamas, spelled out the situation in no uncertain terms. "The situation in Gaza is still very bad, the siege continues, the effects of [the last] war can still be felt everywhere, people's houses are still not rebuilt," he told VICE News. 

"It's a game, things need very delicate calculation. In the current situation we simply cannot afford an escalation, a war with Israel... The battle is there not here, we have already paid dearly for our resistance… The intifada, yes, we are for the intifada, but keep it in the West Bank not here in Gaza."

'Hamas is not willing to make a new war with Israel, but I will keep coming here every day until Palestine is free or I die'

That position were also echoed by Nafez Azzam, a senior figure in the political bureau of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant organization that has recently worked with Hamas to govern the strip. "We [Islamic Jihad] are against these demonstrations at the border, if we hold a demonstration we make it in the downtown, not close to the border," he told VICE News in a simple apartment in Rafah. 

Palestinians throw stones at Israeli troops across the fence during clashes at Nahel Oz border in the eastern Gaza Strip on October 9 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Saber/EPA)

"We don't ask people to go to these areas — this situation [of clashes at the border] is a government problem, the police are supposed to stop these young guys from going there. The only help the people in Gaza can afford to give to the intifada right now, is moral support not practical."

But for Gaza's thousands of frustrated young men like Ahmed that message will prove hard to swallow. As sun sets on the strip's eastern border, hundreds of young men gather for what has become a near nightly show of burning tires and hurling rocks. Sometimes, they say, Hamas security officials try and hold them back. But when numbers exceed more than a hundred or so they either disappear or turn a blind eye.

'Hamas is not willing to make a new war with Israel, but I will keep coming here every day until Palestine is free or I die'

"What can they do to stop the people's will in such a situation?" asked 21-year-old Hassan who splits the cost of a 10 shekel taxi ride to the border every day, sometimes fitting five passengers plus the driver into the car. 

"We know stones don't do anything, but we want to send a message to the West Bank, to show we are supporting our brothers and sisters there," he told VICE News. As he talks a group of young teenagers sneak through the undergrowth under the cover of the thick black smoke to try and hang the Palestinian flag on the border fence. 

The cat-and-mouse game has been pushed too far. Live fire breaks out and everybody dashes back. Ambulance sirens begin to blare, at the back of the crowd one youth has slumped from his motorbike to the ground. "Hamas is not willing to make a new war with Israel, but I will keep coming here every day until Palestine is free or I die," said Hassan, his eyes firmly fixed on the border.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

Watch the VICE News documentary, Clashes in the West Bank: Intifada 3.0 (Dispatch 1):

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