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In Gaza, anger grows at Hamas along with fury at Israel

Displaced Palestinians keep warm by a fire near their tent on Jan. 23, 2024.
Ahmad Hasaballah
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Getty Images
Displaced Palestinians keep warm by a fire near their tent on Jan. 23, 2024.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — "Hamas ... has destroyed us," says Adnan Abdelaal, who has fled for safety four times in the past four months of war.

First, he escaped Israeli bombing on his Gaza City neighborhood. Then he sheltered in a United Nations school until it was hit 40 days later. Then he fled to central Gaza, then farther south to Khan Younis, then even farther south to Rafah, escaping each time the Israeli military got closer.

He is in the same clothes he has worn for the past month, living out of a backpack and searching every night for a new place to sleep.

"I don't know if they thought about it, and what would happen to us," Abdelaal says about Hamas' decision to attack Israel on Oct. 7. "We didn't receive any warning to leave."

Hamas has not tolerated dissent among Gazans in the 17 years it has ruled the tiny territory, choked by an Israeli-led blockade. But dissent against the Islamist militant group is now widespread and out in the open, voiced alongside Gazans' fury with Israel.

"Enough Israel, enough Hamas," Abdelaal says.

Hamas' surprise Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel was the deadliest attack in Israeli history, killing 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. It prompted Israel's deadliest war on Palestinians, killing more than 27,000 people in Gaza, according to Gaza health officials. Entire areas of Gaza have been reduced to wastelands. Most of the population has fled their homes, many living in flimsy tents in the rainy winter.

Cheers rang out on the streets of Rafah this week after Hamas said it responded in a "positive spirit" to a proposal for a cease-fire. But Hamas still drew criticism from some Gazans, for submitting a host of demands for shaping Gaza's reconstruction and future.

"We are not happy with their reply at all," says Jamal, who did not want to use his full name to avoid retribution from Hamas. He lost his home to Israeli bombing in Gaza City and is sheltering in Rafah. "Hamas is focusing mostly on remaining on the chair, ruling Gaza mainly. Because they don't care about people in Gaza, they don't care about their suffering."

Why Gazans have protested

Several demonstrations have taken place in recent weeks in Gaza, expressing frustration with Hamas over the war. At a demonstration in the city of Khan Younis, Palestinian protesters singled out the leaders of Israel and Hamas.

"Netanyahu and Sinwar, enough war and enough destruction," they chanted, in a protest captured on film and shared on social media. "The people demand a cease-fire."

Hamas' popularity has soared in the other Palestinian territory, the West Bank, since the war began. In past Israel-Hamas wars, Gazans under bombardment also rallied around Hamas for standing up to years of Israeli oppression. But this war is different.

Large parts of Gaza City have been decimated by Israeli bombardment.
/ Omar El Qattaa for NPR
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Omar El Qattaa for NPR
Large parts of Gaza City have been decimated by Israeli bombardment.

It's the deadliest conflict Palestinians have faced in their history, coupled with Israel's large-scale destruction of homes and infrastructure across Gaza. About 85% of the population, according to the U.N., have now fled their homes and are sheltering in tents, schools and overcrowded buildings.

Many in Gaza liken it to the foundational Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the mass Palestinian displacement that came with the establishment of Israel, what Palestinians call the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe.

Some Hamas supporters say the group miscalculated

Hamas still has supporters in Gaza. A recent pollfound 57% of Gazans support Hamas' decision to attack on Oct. 7. Most of the Palestinians surveyed said they had not seen the videos of Hamas' attacks on Israelis that day and didn't think Hamas committed atrocities.

But even supporters of Hamas launching the attack say the group misjudged the consequences.

Abdelsalam Al-Ghoul, a 30-year-old Palestinian who fled his home in Gaza, called Hamas' attack an "honorable act" against Israeli oppression, but says Hamas "greatly misjudged the situation," because Iran and Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed militia in Lebanon, didn't join the attack, diminishing its results.

He criticizes Hamas for preparing its fighters for the war, without preparing its civilians.

Palestinian women line up to buy fresh bread next to destroyed buildings at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on Nov. 4, 2023.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Palestinian women line up to buy fresh bread next to destroyed buildings at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on Nov. 4, 2023.

"The resistance says it's ready for rounds of combat for months and years," Al-Ghoul says. "So are we, but provide us with our daily bread, so we resist together."

It takes hours to wait in bread lines at bakeries, which are short on flour, fuel and cooking gas.

"[Hamas] should give consideration to their people," says Suheir Safi, amid the wafting smoke of a mud oven, where Palestinians baked bread near a tent. "Every shepherd is responsible for his flock."

On Facebook, many Gazans have been alluding to their frustration with Hamas' leader Yahya Sinwar.

"A captain takes the ship to where the people want. A pirate takes the ship to where he wants," Sami Allhelou wrote.

"An entire generation in Gaza never saw a tank in their lives. The crazy man brought the tanks to the center of the refugee camp because of stupidity," Mohanad Mehrez wrote.

Will Hamas survive, and will it change?

The public opinion poll found 51% of Gazans believe Hamas will survive the war and govern Gaza, despite Israel's goal to crush it.

Israel says it has destroyed 17 out of Hamas' 24 battalions in Gaza.

But Hamas still maintains a fighting presence on the battlefield, and has even reasserted itself as a governing force, paying partial salaries to civil servants and sending police officers to patrol in areas where Israeli troops have withdrawn.

Sinwar, the Hamas leader whom Israel has vowed to kill, remains alive, in hiding, leading negotiations with Israel for a hostage-prisoner exchange and cease-fire.

"Hamas, they consider that they are the winner in this war," says Tholfikar Swairjo, a pharmacist in Gaza who was previously a leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist Palestinian political faction. "They didn't lose the war because ... until now, Hamas is Hamas."

The "bigger war," Swairjo says, is what Hamas will face after the fighting is over: the colossal task of rebuilding a decimated Gaza. Hamas cannot do that without international cooperation.

A woman walks past posters depicting Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, plastered on a wall in the Burj al-Barajneh camp for Palestinian refugees in Beirut's southern suburb on Feb. 5.
Anwar Amro / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A woman walks past posters depicting Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, plastered on a wall in the Burj al-Barajneh camp for Palestinian refugees in Beirut's southern suburb on Feb. 5.

Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union. It has been isolated since it won 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections in Gaza and took the territory by force in 2007, driving out the Western-backed Palestinian Authority from the territory. Since then, Israel has led a blockade on Gaza, restricting trade and travel.

This is the fifth war Hamas and Israel have fought since Hamas took over Gaza. The U.S., Qatar and Egypt are now involved in negotiations over what the future Palestinian leadership would look like when the war is over.

To move forward, Swairjo thinks Hamas will have to change from an outlier opposition force to a participant in the internationally recognized Palestinian movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, which is committed to the goal of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"Hamas, they are smart enough to understand what's happening and what is coming in the future. Because of that, they will change," Swairjo says. "People will obligate them to change ... they will not accept to have another war, another catastrophe. People will not accept to continue this forever."

That includes Swairjo himself. He has lost his main pharmacy, his livelihood, his house and his father's house to Israeli bombings in the last four months.

"I lost everything," he says. "I want Hamas to do something for me."

Abu Bakr Bashir contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anas Baba
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.