About 2000 people, most of them from three left-wing minority parties, marched on Saturday in what was said to be a ‘May Day’ demonstration promoting workers’ rights and protesting the poverty and rampant unemployment caused by the Israeli-imposed blockade.
However, many demonstrators came for an additional reason: to protest sundried new Hamas taxes and fees. Suppliers of gas and other basic commodities are raising their prices as a result of new taxes. For example, the price of a pack of cigarettes, most of which are smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, was raised by 2 to 3 shekels to cover a 3 shekel (80 cent) tax on suppliers. Small businesses, including falafel stands, are now forced to pay new license fees of varying amounts.
Earlier this week, Hamas security forces detained Palestinian political activists overnight for distributing leaflets urging Hamas to ease up on the people or face a popular revolt. Communist party (PFLP) official Jamil Mezher told Reuters, "People are under huge pressure but they are also afraid to express themselves and we took the responsibility to voice their concerns."
Another leftist political party, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), urged peaceful protests against Hamas taxes. They said in a statement, "The DFLP condemns the increase of taxes and fees ... which have led to an unprecedented rise in prices amid deteriorating economic and social conditions….We call for popular action and peace protests to stop these measures."
Hamas has not permitted activists to organize a demonstration against the new taxes and fees. DFLP official Talal Abu Zarifa (pictured on right) emphasized in interviews that the Saturday demonstration was directed against Israel. “It’s the time for Israel to stop the siege,” he said. “The continuation of the siege means that the Gaza Strip will turn into a disaster zone, suffering from poverty, hunger and unemployment.”
When I asked Mr. Zarifa if the demonstration was also intended to protest the new taxes, he replied, “The other voice of this demonstration is against the taxes Hamas government is putting on the Palestinian people in the time of a worsening humanitarian situation. This is not acceptable. We ask Hamas to stop this directly—now—so that we can have a suitable life with freedom and dignity for our people.”
The demonstration very nearly turned violent when protesters defied the instructions of Mr. Zarifa and other organizers and broke through a police blockade. The crowd proceeded an additional half-kilometer before organizers finally convinced them to stop at the Hamas border checkpoint. If the massive group of protesters had marched another kilometer to the border, they almost certainly would have been met with live Israeli gunfire.
Demonstration participant Majda Kadeh (pictured on right) was one of many who attempted to proceed to the border. “I am angry because I wasn’t able to finish the demonstration,” she said, her voice vibrating with rage after police blocked her path. “We are sitting without work, without income, without houses….We must go forward so [the Israelis] can hear us! I want all the world to see us! All of the people you’re seeing here are workers without work!”
Two days before the demonstration, I asked Jamila Al Shanti, a parliamentarian and top Hamas leader, about popular criticism that Hamas was imposing taxes on an already desperate and impoverished population. Ms. Shanti said that taxes were “carefully studied” and that taxes are imposed by all governments around the world. She also said that while Hamas is under "brutal siege" by Israel, its financial situation “is not as bad as people think.” Hamas has “other ways” of getting funds, she said. However, Hamas has been unable to pay salaries on time for the past three months, and economic analysts widely claim that Hamas is facing a major financial crisis.
Just as the Saturday demonstration in the north of Gaza nearly got out of control, Egyptian authorities in the south of Gaza declared a state of emergency based on intelligence that a mass of protesters planned to break through the border. Many people in Rafah blame Egypt for the suspicious deaths of four Palestinians in a smuggling tunnel on Thursday. The Hamas government said Egyptian police sprayed poisonous gas into the tunnel. Egypt denies this charge.
Meanwhile, the Free Gaza flotilla of boats filled with hundreds of international activists are slated to set sail at the end of this month. Based on Israel’s violent, lethal suppression of the anti-buffer zone demonstrators and the failure of the Gaza Freedom March to enter Gaza through Egypt this past January, many analysts are doubtful that the boats will make it through the Israeli blockade. This could further fuel desperation, anger and hopelessness among activists and further contribute to rising tensions across Gaza.