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#Hamas: The Islamist Group Cracks Down On Social Media Activists

#Hamas: The Islamist Group Cracks Down On Social Media Activists

For Ayman Al-Aloul, the first night in prison was the worst.

"I was cold. I was sick," the now-free head of Al Arab Now news agency, said in an interview in his Gaza City office. "I was thinking of all the things I've done in my life, but I couldn't blame myself because I didn't know why I was there."

Aloul, 44, was arrested Jan. 3, taken from his home by some half-dozen Hamas police officers, who confiscated two laptops and his phone. He was held for eight days, and tells of being forced to hold still for long periods in uncomfortable positions and of being struck during interrogations.

Aloul says investigators wanted to know just one thing: Who was paying him to criticize Hamas on social media?

"I finally figured out my interrogator didn't know what a hashtag was," Aloul says now with a laugh. "Because he asked as if it was something you buy."

Activists in Gaza say social media campaigns critical of Hamas have gotten the attention of the armed Islamist group that has ruled Gaza for nearly a decade now. Ramzy Herzalla, 27, an activist who was arrested the same week as Aloul, says one campaign rallied against Hamas plans to charge a fee to enter a public park. The plans have not gone into effect.

Herzalla also cites criticism he posted protesting government destruction of a home to make way for a road. He says an official from the Ministry of Interior called and told him to take his posts down; they would put up their own response.

"If they didn't care about what we post, they wouldn't call us and react," Herzalla says.

What landed Aloul and Herzalla in prison was an issue important to every Gazan: a way in and out of the Gaza Strip.

There are two border crossings for travelers. One, called Erez, in the north, goes into Israel. Entry requires a permit from the Israeli military. It is mostly used by traders, Gazans approved for treatment in Israeli or Palestinian hospitals outside Gaza and, periodically, people allowed to visit Jerusalem for Friday prayers.

The other, near the town of Rafah on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, goes into Egypt. When this is open, it's a much easier crossing for Gazans, who travel to Cairo for health care, to fly to Europe or the U.S. for college, or to meet family who cannot enter the Gaza Strip.

Whether the Rafah crossing is open has always fluctuated with politics and security.

A January social media campaign called on Hamas to "hand over Rafah" – meaning hand control on the Gaza side to security forces from the Palestinian Authority, which has little power in Gaza right now.

The idea, long under discussion internationally, is that PA guards would be more acceptable to Egypt, and the Egyptians would open up the now mostly-closed border.

But those guards are under the command of Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president and head of Hamas' rival Palestinian party, Fatah. Hamas and Fatah have not reconciled since bloody battles in 2007, a year after Hamas won the last Palestinian parliamentary elections, in 2006. So for as long as this idea has been proposed, Hamas has balked.

In January, the social media campaign took off. Gazans say it seemed that many people shed fear of criticizing Hamas using their own names.

Herzalla, one of the leaders, said activists had a plan to steadily pressure Hamas.

"We start on Facebook. We get a big number of people seeing and following us. Then the next move was supposed to be street demonstrations. But they arrested us right before the street part."

For him, online activism is a way to try to hold Hamas accountable for the indignities of daily life in Gaza under its control which it fails to improve. Fame gained from his political activism led needy Gazans to ask Herzalla to use social media to help raise money to help them.

Herzalla has turned this into a project, recruiting friends to form the We Are Here To Make You Happy team. One day last week, they installed battery-operated lights, necessary during frequent power outages in Gaza, into the homes of 39 poor families.

And despite the arrest – his fourth, and longest – Herzalla keeps going. The charity, he says, "is a message to the government that it is supposed to be helping the people this way."

Aloul, though, has retreated somewhat. He no longer posts open criticism of Hamas, saying he's not strong enough to face down the militant group.

Both would like a better local government. Herzalla wants regime change. Aloul isn't so sure there is anything better.

Fatah, he believes is corrupt. The only other likely alternative he sees on the horizon is ISIS – much worse than Hamas, he says.

It's not about who governs, Aloul says, but how.

"I want a government that has the people's interest as priority," he says.

He is not expecting one in Gaza anytime soon.

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