RAFAH—On Saturday, December 30, our front door was busted down, and twenty masked men barged in and took my father, a widely respected and deeply learned imam here in Gaza.
One dragged him by his head, and another grabbed him by his beard. My younger brother tried to intervene and reason with the kidnappers, but they beat him. I have a medical condition that makes it hard for me to breathe, so all I could do was watch as the horror unfolded.
I know that if Hamas kills my father, they’ll say that the Israeli army did it. But my father was very keen that even if he died, we should make known the despicable demands they made of him. It was his last request to us, literally as he was being carried out of the door, that should he die, we should publicize the real reason for his death, and it is this:
He wouldn’t preach what Hamas told him to. He refused to tell Gazans that violent resistance, and obedience to Hamas, is the best way out of our current hell.
This story starts before October 7, and even before 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza.
Our family has lived in Gaza for generations. Before 2007, my father worked for the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. After Hamas took over, they forced him out of his position. This was a hard time for my family; my father was the sole breadwinner. Finally, after three long years, he came back to work first as a mosque servant, then a mosque guard, then an employee of the ministry and finally, he was appointed as a mosque imam. (My father is known throughout the Gaza Strip. He has a doctorate in sharia from Cairo’s storied Al-Azhar University, and is well-respected by his peers.)
For Hamas, being Muslim means supporting Hamas, and people who do not support Hamas aren’t Muslims. If you don’t abide by what Hamas tells you, you’ll lose your job or worse. To keep my father in line, ensuring that he would deliver only Hamas-approved Friday sermons and allow Hamas to use his mosque as a clandestine weapons depot, they arrested my brother and me at least ten times between 2016 and 2019. Sometimes they would speak politely, sometimes they would ask us to comply “for the sake of your sisters,” but always the threat of violence loomed in the background. And several times we were beaten and humiliated in front of our father. They beat him, too, once nearly blinding him.
He was forced to do things for Hamas; move money around, store things, keep their secrets.
As an imam, my father keeps the keys to the mosque and is responsible for safeguarding large sums of money that Muslims give as zakat, the mandatory almsgiving of our faith. Hamas members would take advantage of his duties and use the mosque to stash money, weapons, and equipment.
Sometimes they’d bring a large, wrapped-up prayer rug, which they said had been donated—except my father wasn’t allowed to open the rugs; only special volunteers were allowed to open them or transport the rugs in and out. My father had to open and close the doors and allow the sacred space to be used as a warehouse for Hamas. What choice did he have? It’s a bitter truth that Hamas thinks of mosques as the property of their regime and that they store weapons there.
Once there were big boxes that were marked as food aid. There wasn’t food inside, but something made of iron.
The most egregious thing Hamas imposed on my father was the content of his Friday sermons. They instructed him to brainwash people with their politics, to stick with Hamas and with the “resistance,” and that it’s the only choice. That those who died fighting would be rewarded with 72 black-eyed virgins. Patience, jihad, all of that stuff. Hamas exploits our religion, pretending to be modern-day prophets, likening themselves to the companions of the prophet Muhammad.
Nobody told my father there was a plan to attack Israel on October 7. There’s just this constant overarching message within the mosques, Islamic classes, sermons, and lectures, that the “resistance”—meaning Hamas and only Hamas—is the only way to liberate Al-Aqsa and the only way to alleviate our suffering.
They do all this brainwashing to make you think the cause of our suffering is Israel. But I see very clearly who causes our suffering.
Whereas most aid in Gaza is only accessible to Hamas’s loyalists or those who toe the movement’s line, my father would collect and distribute zakat alms to those who actually needed it. Some congregants would donate food, furniture, and household goods; and many among Gaza’s neediest would come to my father, who would see that they were distributed fairly. My father also strove to give pious Muslims unbiased spiritual guidance, not the propaganda Hamas clerics deliver.
We fled our homes in Gaza City on October 20, moving from place to place until settling at my sister’s home in Rafah several weeks ago. Her home was bombed as well, and now roughly forty people, including women and seniors, are sharing space in a building that is partly reduced to rubble.
Since the war, Hamas has put enormous pressure on imams to persuade the population that their only choice is “the resistance.” Schools and universities aren’t functioning; the one thing that draws people in is prayer.
But now we have reached a time when nearly everyone in Gaza is saying Hamas caused the death of 20,000 people in Gaza and the injury of 50,000 more. So when the group demanded that my father go to a school where thousands of displaced persons are sheltering and urge them to stand with the “resistance”—to trust Hamas—he flat-out refused. My father knows the difference between right and wrong. He knew that refusing to act as a megaphone for Hamas could lead to his death, and yet he refused. He has a clear conscience. So does everyone who knows what really happened to him, and why.
This time, it’s not like the prior wars. This time, people are telling the truth.
Before October 7, people were afraid—and of course some people are still afraid—but ironically, when there is fighting, Hamas goes underground, and people can be more vocal about how Hamas has ruined our lives. People are starting to publicly violate the laws, rules, dictates, and orders of Hamas. They are openly cursing Hamas and its leaders in the streets and markets, and ignoring the directives of the few Hamas officials and police still above ground. They have caused so much damage, it’s undeniable. They’ve imposed themselves on our society, on my father, for too long. We’re all paying the price. People want freedom. We hope deeply that this war will end, and that Hamas will end with it.
I don’t know where my father is. I don’t know if I will ever see him alive again. My hope in telling this story to the public, and putting my name to it, is to somehow offer my father a measure of protection. Hamas may wish to release him and show the world that they would never harm an admired mosque preacher. God alone knows the future, but what I know is that, under no circumstances, would my father want to become a propaganda tool.
Mr. Mushtaha shared his story with The Free Press as part of the ongoing series Voices from Gaza, our partnership with the Center for Peace Communications.
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