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As civilian death toll rises in Gaza, Hamas sees growing local support

The more Israel strikes Gaza, the more Hamas regains popularity amongst locals despite increasing attacks that they say target civilians
Palestinians take cover in a street in Gaza City on Friday during an Israeli air strike (AFP)

GAZA CITY – Deep below the ground, scattered in hide outs and out of sight, most of Hamas’ leadership is in a familiar survival mode, trying to make it difficult for Israeli air strikes to target them.

Above the ground, however, Israeli forces have continued to target their homes and families with F16 missiles – and regularly, locals say, hit the wrong targets and instead hit entire families that have nothing to do with the group.

Yet despite the rising death toll and destruction across Gaza, there is a general feeling here on Friday that the more Israel pounds the Strip, the more popular Hamas becomes, a turnaround for the organisation whose popularity has taken a nosedive during its seven year governance of Gaza.

“In the past, we used to put the responsibility of the siege that we are suffering from on Hamas due to their policies in governing Gaza,” Mofeed Abu Shamala, editor and chief of Gaza’s Al Mujtama newspaper. “But during the Israeli aggression, we think highly of Hamas and I feel they start to get more popular among the population.”

On Friday, Israeli F16s and rockets continued to torment the Gaza Strip killing 105 Palestinians, injuring at least 750 and turning more than 200 homes to rubble, leaving thousands of men, women and children homeless, their possessions destroyed and lives in tatters.

Israeli authorities say they have launched 1,100 air-strikes - or one air strike every 4.5 minutes - since Israel’s most recent offensive began on Tuesday. Meanwhile, an estimated 460 retaliatory rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza in the last four days with dozens intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. 

In Gaza, locals are apprehensive about a potential ground invasion, an option Israeli leaders have said they are considering, and one which has seen 33,000 Army reservists called up for preparation.

Across the electrified segregation fence separating Israel and Gaza, Israeli tanks have been gathering at the border for days.

Targeting civilians

The majority of Gazans expressed shock on Friday at the intensity of Israeli airstrikes and the frequency of attacks carried out on family homes. Israeli forces, they say, are intentionally targeting civilians.

As of 2:00PM GMT on Thursday when the death toll was 94, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 77 percent of those killed in Gaza were civilians, including 11 women and 21 children.

Early Friday morning, Palestinian physician Anas Abuelkas was killed when his home was targeted around 3:30AM (1:30AM GMT) by three Israeli F16 missiles. While he slept, his body was split into small, scattered pieces around his apartment.

The doctor’s killing triggered anger in his Tal el Hawwa area in Gaza City. Neighbours say he was not affiliated with any political party and was a dedicated, serious medical practitioner. The location of his home provided no further clues for residents: his apartment was next to Farha, an association which provides loans to young Gazan couples who are struggling financially to marry. 

Mahmoud Al Najjar, a resident in Khan Younis, was in shock as he and others collected the remains of eight members of the Al Hajj family who were killed in an air strike late Thursday that also took the lives of several neighbours.

“How can Israelis claim they are not targeting civilians?” Al Najjar said. “If Israel means to stop rockets attacks, why are they attacking people sleeping in their homes?”

‘It haunts me’

Sharif Mustafa, a 36-year-old civil servant and father of three, says his neighbours in Rafah, the Ghanam family, were surely the wrong target. 

Israeli forces must have meant to hit the house of Jihad Ghannam - a member of Islamic Jihad - but instead hit his cousins while they were asleep, Mustafa said.

“[They are] a very poor and peaceful family, who don’t interfere in the life of others,” he said.

“But did Israel really care who was targeted or killed?” he wondered aloud.

The entire neighbourhood of Yebna, an area in Rafah that was one of the hardest hit locations this week, reeled in shock on Friday at the damage done to the Ghannam family’s home.

An impromptu rescue team of residents searched through the family’s four-story home, now a pile of rubble, looking for the bodies of their neighbours.

As 20-year-old Kifah Shihada Dib Ghannam’s burned body was carried from the debris, neighbours standing behind Mustafa wept when they saw the young mother with whom they had been praying on Thursday evening.

The body of 7-year-old Ghalia Ghannam was also discovered in the rubble as Mustafa looked on.

“I would never imagine that my children would be among those children,” he said.

“I just feel that this is one of my children and it haunts me.”

An unidentified older woman, also killed in the attack, took the worst hit, neighbours said. Her body was taken to the hospital completely burned, triggering a call from a local human rights group for an investigation into the weapons that Israel is using.

During Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, international doctors in Gaza’s hospitals noted that the bodies showed signs of unusual symptoms, attributed to Israel’s use of experimental DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosives), Fleschette weapons and white phosphorous.

“Rockets have chemicals and poisonous materials, and it’s vital for international groups to come and examine the evidence” said Mohammed Al Jamal of the Palestinian Human Rights Defenders network.

One major difference between Israel’s current offensive on Gaza and others in 2012 and 2008, Al Jamal said, are this week’s timing of Israel’s bombings at night which he said are meant to maximise the number of casualties.

Several Gazans have told MEE that air strikes this week have seemed to increase in frequency during Iftar, the evening meal during Ramadan which breaks one’s fast. With electricity often cut off across most of Gaza after 10pm, it means that many of the worst strikes come while Gazans are in darkness.

“Targeting civilians merits war crimes, where all signatories to The Geneva Conventions, must take action immediately,” Al Jamal told MEE.

Ceasefire talks

On Thursday, US President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu talked by phone for the first time since the offensive began on Tuesday. Obama offered to facilitate ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

Whether the US will have direct contact with Hamas remains to be seen. Qatar and Turkey are likely to mediate, analyst say.

Hamas has accused Israel of reneging on the terms of the 2012 ceasefire, which was brokered by President Morsi, of Egypt.

Speaking for the first time since the offensive started, Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas’ senior political leader, said in a recorded statement on Friday that was broadcast by Hamas’ Al Aqsa Satellite Channel that Hamas is not afraid of Israel’s threats and its aggression will fail. Zahar alluded to the fact that Israel would have to make amends for the broken ceasefire agreement:

“Israel started the war, and we will be the one preparing the document which Israel will have to sign,” Zahar said.

Although a White House statement released earlier this week expressed concern about the escalating attacks, many Gazans say they believe the American position is biased and will be watching closely to see how serious the US is about brokering an end to violence in the blockaded Strip.

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