BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip (AP) — The group of neighbors surveyed the destruction wreaked on their residential complex by Israeli bombardment, with building after building flattened or punctured by shells. The men then began to voice something almost never heard out loud in Gaza: criticism of its Hamas rulers.
Exhausted by a month of pounding by Israel's military — on top of seven years of stifling closure of the tiny Mediterranean coastal strip — they questioned Hamas' handling of the crisis and the wisdom of repeatedly going to war with Israel.
"We do not want to be bombarded every two or three years. We want to lead a good life: Sleep well, drink well and eat well," said Ziad Rizk, a 37-year-old father of two, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He stared at the damaged apartment building where he lived. His sofa and a blue baby carriage were perched precariously on a tilting concrete slab that was his floor.
It is impossible to say how widespread such discontent is among Gaza's 1.8 million residents. Under Hamas rule, it's rare and dangerous to share even as much as a hint of criticism of the government with outsiders.
Still, the men's boldness in voicing their opinions could be a telling sign that some Gazans see Hamas as weakened. It points to how desperate many Gazans have become after the most ruinous of three bouts of major Hamas-Israel violence since the militant group overran the territory in 2007. More than 1,900 Palestinians have been killed, mostly civilians, nearly 10,000 wounded and some 250,000 displaced since fighting started July 8.
Significantly, a Hamas rally last week attracted 2,000-3,000 people, a low number compared to its routinely massive rallies, particularly considering it was held at a time when the group is at war with Israel.
Hamas has ruled with an iron fist since it took over Gaza, expelling the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. It does not tolerate dissent, detains critics and carries out extrajudicial executions of alleged spies for Israel. It has filled government departments with loyalists and is particularly intolerant of any criticism of its handling of the conflict with Israel. It seeks to block unauthorized media coverage of its military wing.
In almost every square and major intersection in Gaza City, giant billboards extoll the battlefield valor of Hamas fighters, their quest for martyrdom and their locally manufactured rockets. Al-Aqsa television, the organization's 24-hour news channel, tirelessly airs Hamas propaganda and reports news with a Hamas-friendly slant.
The men who spoke with the AP were all friends and neighbors who live in the Abraj al-Nada, or Al-Nada Towers, a collection of apartment buildings that was hit hard by Israeli airstrikes and tank shelling on July 17 in the northern Gaza district of Beit Lahiya.
Visiting their wrecked homes with their families during the current truce, they sat outside a tent or in an impromptu shelter they set up — cushions and a rug under a blanket hoisted on four poles, with a small red, white and green Palestinian flag. An Israeli drone menacingly hovered overhead as the men spoke.
Their grumbling is in part born from Gaza's increasing economic hardship. Unemployment runs at around 50 percent. The Hamas government owes workers several months' back pay. The 7-year blockade by Israel and Egypt has choked businesses and jobs.
Even as they shared their views with the AP, they hedged their opinions. They never, for example, expressed a desire to see Hamas removed from power or abandon armed struggle against Israel. They have no love for Israel, though older members of the community fondly remembered the days when they commuted to Israel for day jobs that put food on the table.
"I respect the resistance. The fighters may be spending the night out there in open space facing the enemy while I have the comfort and satisfaction of being with my family," said Loay Kafarnah, a taxi driver who lost his apartment in the shelling.
"But we also want to live. How can we have a war every two or three years? Is that a life?" he said, sitting on rickety plastic garden chairs with a group of close friends and neighbors.
Visible not far away were green fields and trees across the border in Israel. An Israeli train sped by. They could easily see across the border because, they said, Israel several years ago tore down a nearby orchard on the Gaza side that was impeding its soldiers' view in.
"Look at what they have," the 27-year-old Kafarnah said. "Why can't we live like that too?"
His friend, a school teacher who also lost his home, delivered a more pointed criticism of Hamas.
"We have put up with a great deal. They take us to war, fire rockets on Israel from outside our homes and invite destruction to our homes. Fine, but now what?" said the green-eyed teacher in his late 20s, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation.
"Does anyone in the government know what happened to us? Shouldn't they come offer us help? Or a few comforting words?"
Rizk said he had hoped government officials would be there to take details from residents to offer assistance or future compensation. "But I have been wasting my time," he said.
Ramadan Naufal said his family has moved from the house of one relative to another since the strikes on his home.
"They are fed up with us and I know it," said the portly 46-year-old. So he buys groceries every day for his hosts "to cushion our intrusion."
"This war was something else. No rock, tree or man has been spared," he said, then adding the refrain said by many: "How can we cope with a war every couple of years?"
In the latest truce, dozens of residents of the al-Nada Towers visited their homes to salvage what they can. All seemed stunned and heavy with bereavement, even as they traded greetings with former neighbors, now partners in yet another journey to piece together their lives. Many traded advice on how to seek compensation.
Around a third of the 25 buildings in the complex were crushed in airstrikes and heavy tank fire. Most of the rest are too damaged to live in. Residents collected metal and wood from the debris and loaded them onto donkey carts to sell as scrap. Others looked for pillows, blankets and any usable food items like sugar, tea or flour. Some looked inside water tanks for anything left to bathe with.
Salah Abu Shabab, one of a group of Bedouin who live nearby, said he lost 27 head of sheep, a donkey and a 1984 Mercedes-Benz he used as a taxi. "This is where I buried the donkey," he said, pointing at a mound of dirt.
The 54-year-old and his family of 12 now live in a U.N. school, like thousands of others. He vows he won't leave it until the government assures him of accommodation. "I know the school year begins next month, but that is their problem."
Rizk, the father of two, tried to salvage a rug from his third-story apartment. As he pulled it, the concrete slabs started falling and he gave up, fearing he'd be crushed.
"I have lost everything, so I should at least try and stay alive."