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Hamas cracks down on protests over Gaza living conditions

Palestinians in Gaza have protested for three days against rising living costs, tax increases
Protesters in Deir al-Balah have gathered for three days against deteriorating living conditions (Twitter)

Hamas forces have reportedly cracked down on protests for better living conditions in the blockaded Gaza Strip, blaming the demonstrations on the rival Palestinian Authority. 

Protests went on for the third day in a row on Saturday to highlight poor economic conditions, rising living costs and tax increases.

Demonstrators went out across Gaza, but protests were focused on Deir al-Balah, a town south of Gaza City. 

Live broadcasts posted on social media from Deir al-Balah appeared to show Hamas security forces in riot gear beating protesters with batons. 

Onlookers, mostly filming from their homes, screamed as they saw other residents chased, including a man who appeared to be asking other protesters to stop throwing objects at the police. 

Gaza-based journalist and MEE correspondent Hind Khoudary said protesters, including women, had been beaten, and that security forces raided homes around the site of the protest. She added that the sound of live ammunition was heard during the protests. 

Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq criticised the "grave assaults" of protesters, including three members of the Gaza-based rights group Independent Commission for Human Rights.

"The assaults against them appear to indicate that the security services in Gaza intended to prevent them from carrying out their human rights work, including to hamper their monitoring and documentation of violations and their follow-up on the human rights situation," Al-Haq said in a statement on Saturday. 

The organisation said hundreds of protesters had gathered in various cities, raising signs calling both on the de facto Hamas government and its rival, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) based in the occupied West Bank, to improve living conditions. 

Gaza has been the target of a more than decade-long land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt that limits the movement of both goods and people. During the same period, there has been a stand-off between Hamas and Fatah, after the former took control of Gaza in 2007 following 2006 legislative elections where Hamas' victory was contested by Fatah. 

Fatah's leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has tried to heap pressure on Hamas since 2017 by cutting Gaza's electricity supplies and stopping the payment of salaries of PA employees in Gaza.

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After the PA's withdrawal from Gaza in 2007, it had nonetheless continued to pay those employees on condition that they did not work for Hamas. Amid the dire circumstances in the besieged enclave, PA salaries have often been a lifeline for many Gaza families.

A Hamas statement on Saturday blamed the territory's economic conditions on the blockade and the Palestinian Authority's measures, calling them a "national, moral, and humanitarian crime" aimed at sowing disunity among Palestinians. 

After Friday's protests, the UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights said it was "shocked at the violent response of Hamas security forces in dispersing demonstrations across the Gaza Strip".

"Security personnel in plainclothes, a number of whom were carrying batons, raided the demonstrations and forcibly prevented participants from filming or photographing including beating and hospitalising a number of demonstrators. An undetermined number of protesters were arrested and detained by security forces," the statement said.

The protests over the living situation in Gaza have emerged just as a Great March of Return protest was cancelled for the first time on Friday, after Israeli jets pounded the enclave overnight and rockets were launched at Tel Aviv.

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The Great March of Return, a regular series of protests which began on 30 March 2018, has been calling for an end to the siege and the implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees whose families were displaced during the creation of the state of Israel. Israeli forces have killed more than 255 Palestinians and injured over 29,000 in Gaza since the beginning of the march. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed during the same time frame.

The suspension of the Great March of Return comes as Egypt is reportedly brokering a truce agreement between Israel and Hamas - amid fears that, if nothing is done, existing tensions might boil over into full-blown war.