GazaWATCH: Human Rights Abuses

Since its founding, Hamas has not only terrorized the Israeli population but its own people as well. After Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and subsequent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, the movement committed an untold number of human rights abuses with little condemnation from the international community. And yet, many of these abuses are well documented by human rights organizations and journalists. Today, Hamas enforces a brutal regime in Gaza.

Suppression of Political Opponents

Hamas’s tactics in securing its takeover of the Gaza Strip were so brutal that even Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas called the movement “murderous terrorists” in a televised statement. As the International Crisis Group explains it, “Hamas’s seizure of power left a trail of death and mutilation.”[1]

In the weeks preceding the takeover, Hamas’s armed militias terrorized members of the opposition party, Fatah, in order to oust them from the Gaza Strip. Several senior members of the PA’s security forces were executed without trial. Many Fatah members were thrown off high-rise buildings by Hamas terrorists. When not executed, Hamas tortured its captives and following an interrogation often “sprayed [the victim] with machine-gun fire from the waist down”[2] as “punishment” before being released. According to a foreign doctor working in Gaza at that time, during the four days of the takeover, “Gaza’s amputee population doubled.”[3]

Hamas used institutions such as hospitals and schools during the campaign to launch attacks against, and interrogate and torture, Fatah members, endangering the lives of Palestinian civilians. Masked gunmen are known to have burst into hospital wards and shoot injured Fatah militants in cold-blood. The United Nations suspended its work in the region after two of its workers were shot dead in gun battles.

Within three months after the takeover, Hamas had secured its rule over Gaza through violent suppression of opponents. Hamas targeted rival groups and members of Gaza’s civil society, detaining and torturing many with tactics such as breaking limbs, placing burning rods of iron into the backs of victims,[4] pulling out beards, beating with iron bars, and shooting victims in the spine and abdomen.[5] Hamas forces also routinely summoned political leaders into their interrogation facilities for spans of time ranging from hours to weeks. A written summons would often include the threat: “if you don’t come, say goodbye to your knee.”[6] And the list of torture practices goes on. During June 2007, the month that the Hamas takeover was complete, 161 Palestinians, including 41 civilians, were killed. In all of 2007, at least 353 Palestinians were killed and thousands injured. Moreover, an estimated 616 Palestinians were killed in factional fighting between January 2006, when Hamas defeated Fatah in elections, and June 2007, before Hamas staged its violent coup.

Since consolidating power, Hamas has continued its harsh tactics to maintain its grip over Gaza. Hamas employs “drones”—jobless young men who become paid Hamas informants, and “children of the mosque”—youth informants, to keep an eye on its opposition.[7] Hamas has closed cafes in areas not suitable for surveillance, forcing them to open in easier-to-observe locations. According to one observer, “Before, we were just trying to keep our heads down while the two parties attacked each other. Now normal citizens are targeted, too. There is nothing in Gaza except Hamas.”[8]

During Operation Cast Lead, which lasted from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009, tensions with Fatah as well as other armed groups re-emerged as Hamas accused various Palestinians of being sympathizers or collaborators with Israel, against which they increased their torture practices. According to Human Rights Watch, Hamas illustrated a pattern of arbitrary arrests and detentions, maiming by shooting, and extrajudicial executions. Moreover, Hamas gunmen attacked and attempted to hijackaid convoys and ambulances on their way to assist Palestinian civilians during and after the three-week long conflict. To this day, Hamas arrests and executes Gazans it accuses of spying for Israel.

Hamas’s suppression of Jund Ansar Allah, the Salafi-jihadist group in Gaza, is another example of how the organization deals with political opponents. After the group’s leader, Abdul-Latif Moussa, declared Gaza an “Islamic emirate” in 2009, Hamas forces attacked the mosque where Moussa was at the time, indiscriminately shooting at the mosque and its heavily populated surrounding environs. According to reports, Hamas executed opponents and fired rocket propelled grenades (RPG’s) at houses because opponents had taken cover in them. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 28 people were killed from the fighting, while over 100 were wounded and 100 detained—some of which had been forcibly removed from ambulances. Not surprisingly, among the dead and wounded were civilians.

In 2010, peaceful assemblies were increasingly disrupted, either by Hamas forces or people associated with or condoned by Hamas. In May, the Gaza Ministry of Interior shut down a demonstration expressing support for UNRWA, the UN body that assists Palestinian refugees, following an attack on one of its summer camp facilities. Police and the Mukhabarat (secret service) were said to have intimidated members of the crowd.[9] Moreover, from 2007 to 2011 Hamas routinely suppressed public displays of support for Fatah.[10] Unarmed Gazans wearing a Fatah medallion were reportedly beaten in the streets with Kalashnikov butts until their bones broke.[11] However, in May 2011 Gazans were allowed to fly the yellow Fatah flag for the first time in four years in honor of the Fatah-Hamas unity deal signed that month.

Disregard for Israeli and Palestinian Life

In its fight against Israel, Hamas employs a mixture of terrorist, guerrilla, and urban militant measures that endanger the lives of both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.

Hamas is perhaps best known for its large-scale suicide attacks. Since 1993, when Hamas carried out its first suicide bombing in Israel, the terrorist group is believed to have killed over 500 civilians. Adding to its suicide bombings, Hamas, in 2001, began launching rockets and mortar shells at Israeli towns and cities, terrorizing citizens. Hamas sharply increased its rocket attacks against Israel after the latter pulled out of Gaza in 2005, and continued this trend after becoming the governing body of Gaza in 2007. During that year alone, 896 hits were identified in Israeli territory. In 2008, approximately 1,750 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip struck southern Israel, prompting an Israeli incursion at the end of the year. Luckily, 2009 saw a drastic decrease in rocket fire, largely a result of Operation Cast Lead. That year, 578 hits were identified—nearly all fired during the operation. In addition to rockets, more than 4,300 mortar shells were fired at Israeli soldiers and civilians from Gaza between 2001 and 2010. In all, high-trajectory fire from Gaza, a clear violation of international law, has killed over 40 people in Israel.

Not only did Hamas sharply increase rocket fire at Israeli civilians after Israel pulled out from Gaza in 2005, but it did so from residential areas, putting Palestinian lives in danger from: 1) IDF forces that, as Hamas knew, would seek to neutralize such threats, and 2) its imprecise rockets that sometimes fall short. Indeed, in August 2011 alone the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights documented injuries to eight civilians over a period of five days “due to the explosions of home-made rockets in populated areas across the Gaza Strip.”

Hamas routinely uses civilian areas as battlegrounds—a war crime according to Article 28 of the Geneva Convention—so that when Israel is forced to retaliate innocent civilians are killed, making Israel look like an aggressive and evil state. Hamas purposefully positions its military establishments amidst civilians and is known to locate weapons caches and factories inside mosques, public buildings such as schools, and even civilian homes. According to Hamas operatives, the group does this to decrease the chances of Israel directly retaliating. Not only does this promote a tradition of martyrdom as honorable in Palestinian society should innocent civilians be caught up in the field of war, but it also makes it difficult for Israel to adhere to humanitarian law where possible and not fire within civilian areas.

Finally, Hamas openly supports the use of human shields, displaying the organization’s complete cowardice and total disregard for human life. According to a 2009 study by the Israel-based Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Hamas usesIsraeli leaflets warning Gazans of an upcoming attack in their neighborhood as information to call civilians to act as human shields at that site. As one example, in February 2009, Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV called on the residents of Khan Yunis to gather at a specific house in anticipation of an IDF airstrike. An hour later dozens of Palestinians reportedly gathered on the roof of the house to prevent it from being hit.

Suppression of Institutions and Citizens

Hamas strives to take over Gaza’s institutions and businesses so that they are all Hamas-run and, therefore, support Hamas’s policies. Since 2007, Hamas has actively taken over Gaza’s real estate market, land, the hotel business, and housing projects. Hamas has also demolished homes so it can use the land for its own purposes, seized money from banks in Gaza, seized food and equipment from UNRWA that was meant for Gaza’s needy, seized medical equipment and shut down independent health clinics, closed independent charity organizations, and more.

According to former Palestinian Authority minister Hassan ‘Asfour: “Recently, Hamas has revealed a new facet of its character. It no longer persecutes only its political and ideological rivals…. It has [also] begun engaging in a new kind of persecution: targeting businesses that do not belong to Hamas. Dozens of coffee shops, cafeterias, kiosks, barber shops and other businesses have been closed down or torched on the pretext that they violated shari’a… [Hamas’s] goal is to shut down all competition in Gaza, and leave only businesses belonging to the movement, which already has nearly complete control over the Gaza economy.”

In August 2011, the Hamas regime imposed new restrictions on Palestinians active in non-governmental organizations, requiring any person leaving Gaza for NGO activity to provide the government with full details of the trip, including the purpose, length and destination, a description of the project, and the names and information of those involved. This is not the first time Hamas has imposed travel restrictions on people. It often prevents children, doctors, and Fatah members from leaving Gaza even if they obtained exit permits from Israel. For example, in August 2011, Hamas restricted Gazan students from leaving the Strip to attend a school in the U.S. through a scholarship program.

The Hamas government has also closed pro-Fatah media outlets and forcefully quiets journalists. In June 2007, Hamas fighters shut down all nine Fatah-affiliated media outlets. Moreover, at that time Hamas militants conducted an armed raid of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate (PJS) offices, closing it down shortly thereafter. In its stead, Hamas established a new Government Committee for Media.

In August 2007, Hamas announced it would enforce a 1995 Palestinian Authority Press Law under which publishing news that threatens “national unity” is punishable by imprisonment. Of course, such a law increased the level of Gaza reporters’ self-censorship. The Interior Ministry in Gaza also declared that journalists would not be allowed to continue working in Gaza without obtaining a Hamas-issued press card, which required submitting to their harsh editorial restrictions. The Hamas regime has also constricted radio stations with high fees and obstacles to renewing licenses,[12] seized footage from photographers, and summoned journalists for interrogation.[13]

Moreover, Gaza’s Culture Ministry uses strict standards when approving movies and films before they can be aired. In 2010, for example, Hamas banned the screening of a local movie because of a four-second scene in which Israeli soldiers eye a Palestinian woman whose hair is uncovered.

In July 2010, after Israel eased its blockade on Gaza and permitted three West Bank newspapers to enter the area €”Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Al-Ayyam, and Al-Quds Hamas banned the papers, saying they would only be distributed if the papers signed an agreement stating they would not criticize the Hamas government. The three papers are considered pro-Fatah.

Currently, intimidation, physical violence, arbitrary arrest, and detention of journalists by members of Hamas forces are commonplace. This, coupled with various kidnappings, has effectively quieted Palestinian reporters as well as chased foreign journalists from the Gaza Strip.

Women’s Rights and Sharia

Women’s freedoms have been progressively repressed under Hamas’s Islamist regime. Modesty patrols reportedly roam the beach looking for women swimming without their heads covered, in pants instead of robes, or walking without a male escort. They are also known to have gone into hotels catering to foreigners to check for unmarried couples and halt couples in the streets and demand to see their marriage licenses.

Under Hamas rules, Gaza’s women can no longer ride on motor scooters with men or dance in public. Hamas militants carrying AK-47s have broken-up dancing venues. In March 2010, Hamas banned men from working in women’s salons and in July 2010, Hamas forbid women from smoking water pipes in public and forced stores selling women’s clothing to remove any scantily-dressed mannequins. The Hamas government has also banned males from working in girls’ schools and “informally” instructed girls’ schools to enforce an Islamic dress code €”although girls who refused to wear such clothing were expelled. This ban was a part of Hamas’s “Yes to Modesty” campaign launched in June 2009, an information campaign in which fliers, stickers, and other forms of material were distributed for the purpose of promoting what Hamas perceives as modest—an Islamic dress code for women and the segregation of men and women in public places.

Hamas’s stifling of women’s rights should be understood as part of its larger plan to enforce Sharia, or Islamic law, onto Gaza’s population and create an Islamic culture. Since taking over in 2007, Hamas has slowly gained control over Gaza’s Islamic infrastructure[14] €”such as mosques and zakat committees and Islamized the Strip with new rules and regulations every few months. This is in line with the policy of Hamas’s parliament in Gaza, which in 2008 approved a bill to implement an Islamic penal code, as well as the policies of Hamas’s Minister of Interior Fathi Hammad, who in February 2010 called for “Da’wa efforts to reach all institutions, not just mosques,” signaling an interest in Islamizing all government agencies.[15]

In August 2010, Hamas shut down a Gaza water park for three days and ordered its owners to sign a document promising to separate males and females and ban women from smoking water pipes. Even though the owners complied, the following month Hamas officials ordered the park to close for 21 days because the owners supposedly dug a well without a permit. During the shut-down, the park was burned to the ground.

In November 2010, Hamas officials closed the UN-funded Sharek Youth Forum €”one of Gaza’s largest secular youth organizations and a popular hangout. According to the organization, its closure came after repeated questioning of Sharek’s staff, most of which focused on mixed-gender activities.

The month prior, the Israel Security Agency (ISA) reported that Hamas is expanding the way it uses the Internet to further spread Islamic values and religion as part of its plan to increase the role that Sharia plays in Gaza. The ISA also noted that Hamas replaced Gaza’s curriculum, which was based on the Egyptian curriculum, with a new program designed “in the spirit of the national Palestinian project.”

In January 2011, the Hamas regime confiscated novels from bookstores that, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Interior, violate Sharia. What was their sin? While one of the books portrays a romantically involved unmarried couple, the other describes God as a “failed artist” and the Prophet Mohammad as a womanizer.

While some analysts have argued that Hamas’s rescinding of some Islamic-minded measures that sparked an outcry (such as the ruling for women to wear a full head covering in court) shows it is a moderate and pragmatic organization, this is not the case. Locals concede that they often adjust their behavior to fit with Hamas standards just to avoid trouble, and that while Hamas may “recommend” a specific action, that recommendation is really an order. Moreover, while the Hamas regime may openly back away from an unpopular law, it does so only to appease the population so as not to bring about an uprising against it. All the while, Hamas enforces its harsh laws discreetly. For example, the Hamas government is known to fine local NGOs that organize “joint activities” with boys and girls.[16] In this way, Hamas is gradually imposing an Islamic state onto Gaza’s population. The cumulative effect is stifling.

Child Abuse

Again, showing its level of fanaticism and complete disregard for human life, Hamas targets Palestinian children, training them as combatants and using them as human shields in the field of war. Both practices are explicitly illegal under international law and help explain why a higher number of casualties in Gaza are often children.

For Hamas, indoctrinating children is the key to the organization’s future success. One of the ways Hamas accomplishes this goal is through media programming. Hamas’s TV station, Al-Aqsa TV, runs various shows and music videos geared towards children that glorify violence and jihad. For example, in April 2007 Hamas debuted the show “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” which featured a Mickey Mouse look-alike character that promoted anti-Semitism, jihad, and “liberating Palestine”—meaning, all of Israel. While the character of Mickey Mouse has changed multiple times since then, the message of hate remains the same.

Hamas also indoctrinates children with its summer camps. According to Palestinian and Arab media, in 2009, Hamas ran 700 camps throughout the Gaza Strip that catered to 100,000 Palestinian children and adolescents. Hamas reportedly received the same number of children in 2010, while the Palestinian Islamic Jihad ran 51 camps with 10,000 participants. These children are known to have undergone paramilitary training €”which includes exercises in hand-to-hand combat, rope climbing, crawling, and practice using weapons €”and camp-goers are taught the glory of martyrdom and given prizes for memorizing sections of the Quran.

On the other hand, United Nations-run camps are Hamas’s main competitors for the hearts and minds of the youth, as the UN camps work to foster values of secularism and freedom. For this reason, UN camps in the Gaza Strip are often the target of violence, propaganda, and vandalism.

According to a 2010 report in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram: “While the children in the UNRWA [camps run by the UN] enjoy painting, swimming, and dancing to folk music, other children march in military parades, bearing the photos of Hamas prisoners and martyrs and shouting slogans of the resistance. These are the children in the Hamas camps. ‘Our Al-Aqsa, our prisoners, freedom will come’ – these are the slogans shouted by children aged seven through 12 in a military march. ‘No toys or rowdiness,’ as one of the camp leaders put it… The children live in an atmosphere of military mobilization and preparation for resistance [in times of both] peace and war. In one camp, held at the Sheikh Radwan mosque, the setting and the training create an atmosphere of war and resistance. Photos of masked men with guns festoon the camp, [which looks like] a military base.”


Virtually no attention is given in the international media to Hamas’s treatment of the Palestinian people. Through its policies and activities, the movement has shown that it is not interested in the welfare of Gaza’s Palestinians, but rather considers them as pawns to be used to gain international support in the fight against Israel and Israeli legitimacy.

[1] “Inside Gaza: The Challenge of Clans and Families,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Report 71 (2007): 14.
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Ruling Palestine I: Gaza Under Hamas,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Report 73 (2008): 10.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Round Two in Gaza,” International Crisis Group, Middle East Briefing 24 (2008): 4.
[6] “Ruling Palestine I,” 10.
[7] “Round Two in Gaza,” 7.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Michael Broning, The Politics of Change in Palestine (New York: Pluto Press, 2011), 36.
[10] Yezid Sayigh, “Hamas Rule in Gaza: Three Years On,” Brandeis University Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Middle East Brief 41 (2010): 4.
[11] “Ruling Palestine I,” 11.
[12] Broning, The Politics of Change in Palestine, 37.
[13] “Ruling Palestine I,” 11.
[14] Sayigh, “Hamas Rule in Gaza,” 4.
[15] Ibid., 5.
[16] Ibid.