February 2, 2023

Listen to Gaza’s Quiet Dissenters

The remarkable “Whispered in Gaza” interviews are a reminder that what is true of every dictatorship will prove true of Gaza as well.

Many years ago I became friends with an Egyptian man who, I was surprised to learn, strongly supported Israel. He had grown up in the 1950s and ‘60s, a time when the Jewish state was relentlessly demonized as an enemy in Egypt’s schools and media. Yet in the early 1980s, he began to doubt the venomous portrait of Israel he had always been exposed to.

What changed his mind was the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, a bloodbath in which Lebanese Christian militiamen slaughtered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinian Muslims. Israeli troops stationed in southern Lebanon didn’t participate in the massacre, but they also did nothing to prevent it. That dereliction of moral duty horrified Israelis, and 400,000 of them — one-tenth of the nation’s population — poured into the streets of Tel Aviv in a vast, stunning, furious protest against their government’s complicity.

For my Egyptian friend, that was an eye-opener. In his country, such a demonstration would have been unthinkable. He was astonished by the freedom of Israelis to condemn their rulers without fear of retaliation. That revelation transformed the way he thought about a nation he had been taught to hate.

What brings my friend’s epiphany to mind is an extraordinary series of animated short videos in which ordinary residents of Gaza speak honestly and bravely about living under the brutal rule of Hamas. Titled “Whispered in Gaza,” the project was produced by the Center for Peace Communications, a US-based nonprofit that strives to overcome cultures of intransigence and promote reconciliation in the Middle East and North Africa. The interviews, conducted in 2022, have been posted online in six languages — Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Farsi — through a collaboration of media outlets that includes Al Arabiya, the global Persian news site Kayhan, and The Times of Israel.

Through official intimidation or social pressure, Gazans may face intense pressure to show support for Hamas and its murderous policies. So when Hamas organizes gaudy street revels to celebrate a terrorist attack — like the fireworks and sweets it arranged after a gunman murdered seven Israelis outside a Jerusalem synagogue Friday night — it can be a challenge to remember that there are many Palestinians who don’t rejoice at the murder of innocent Jews.

“Whispered in Gaza” features 25 Gaza Palestinians whose views are not those of Hamas, but who don’t dare express them openly. In the videos, their anonymity protected, they speak from the heart.

In one, “Fatima” describes the persecution endured by her brother, a humble vegetable seller, after he refused to pay protection money to Hamas. The police arrested him on a trumped-up drug charge and locked him in prison. “They beat him repeatedly to make him confess to things he had nothing to do with,” she says. Then they threatened to kill him. Eventually he fled the country, leaving behind a family devastated by his absence.

In another video, “Maryam” recounts her love of traditional Arabic dancing. But after the Hamas takeover, she was ordered to give up dance and focus on studying the Koran instead. When she balked, authorities threatened to jail her five brothers, at which point she abandoned her dream of being a performer. “I want Gaza to be liberated from the government of Hamas,” she says wistfully. “Then Gaza will develop [and] we’ll have tourists and theater.”

For those of us who detest Hamas no less than for those who defend it, it is powerful to hear the voices of Palestinians like “Layla,” who is sickened by the constant exaltation of war and “resistance” in the Palestinian media. “If you’re a Gazan citizen who opposes war and says, 'I don’t want war,’ you’re branded a traitor,” she tells her interviewer. “It’s forbidden to say you don’t want war.” So people keep quiet, she explains, for fear of being tarred as disloyal.

Especially poignant is the plight of “Amna,” a Palestinian mother who yearns to give her children an education that will prepare them “to think rationally … to live a modern life.” The Hamas-run schools are affordable, she says, “but I don’t want my kids to be exposed to that indoctrination” — to be told “how they can go to heaven” by becoming suicide terrorists. “Gaza is beautiful,” Amna says sadly. “But there are things here that ruin everything — first and foremost, the presence of Hamas.”

Palestinian society is not monolithic. The people of Gaza don’t all think alike. Amid the bitter oppression of life under Hamas, there are many Palestinians who dream of something better, freer, more hopeful. The remarkable “Whispered in Gaza” interviews are a reminder that what is true of every dictatorship will prove true of Gaza as well. In time, all tyrannies collapse, but the hunger for freedom and human dignity can never be extinguished.

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