JERUSALEM — For five years, a small but feisty group of Palestinian peace activists in the blockaded Gaza Strip has been organizing small-scale video chats with Israelis under a bridge-building initiative it calls “Skype With Your Enemy.”
On Monday, the group, the Gaza Youth Committee, drew one of its biggest crowds yet — more than 200 participants — this time on Zoom, the newly popular teleconferencing platform.
But other Palestinians in Gaza, who took umbrage at the idea of befriending Israelis, were also listening in. And the resulting public uproar prompted Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, to arrest the youth committee’s leader and several other participants.
The charge: “holding a normalization activity” with Israelis, which a Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman, Iyad Al-Bozom, called a crime, saying it amounted to the “betrayal of our people and their sacrifices.”
The youth committee’s leader, Rami Aman, 38, has not been heard from since he surrendered Thursday morning at Internal Security headquarters in Gaza City, a family member said late Friday afternoon.
Israeli journalists are barred from entering the Gaza Strip, and vice versa, so the two populations know little about one another and have almost no civilian interaction, apart from small numbers of Gaza merchants permitted to do business in Israel and of Gaza patients treated in Israeli hospitals.
The nearly two-hour video chat, held in English, gave the left-leaning Israeli participants, mostly in their 20s and 30s, a rare chance to hear directly from a handful of Gaza residents about life under the 12-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade and how the coronavirus is affecting things.
“Do you have music festivals?,” one Israeli asked. (That is forbidden, he was told.)
But the questions quickly grew more philosophical: How can people maintain hope, a woman asked, when things get really difficult?
Mr. Aman said he staved off despair by pouring himself into projects, like dancing or putting on plays with Israelis over online video, or a new plan to teach English and soccer to Gaza children eight to 10 years old.
He said the youth committee’s goal was to build a new generation of leaders who believe in making peace. And he encouraged the Israelis to do the same: “Be active, guys,” he told them, urging the Israelis to run for Parliament. “Go to the Knesset, be ministers,” he said.
“Let’s change the names,” he said. “Let’s create a new kind of Netanyahu, a new kind of Abu Mazen,” references to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the nickname of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
An Israeli man asked what Israelis could do to stop people from being raised to hate. Another youth committee member, Manar Al-Sharif, responded that the best way was for Israelis and Palestinians to talk, rather than relying on the news for information about one another.
Mr. Aman, who founded the youth committee 10 years ago, was asked if Hamas was aware of his actions. He noted he had been “invited” in for questioning many times, and had been held for 17 days last year after having organized an attention-getting bike ride with Israeli counterparts along both sides of the Gaza-Israel border.
“They thought I’m working as a spy, maybe sending names of fighters or maps of tunnels,” he said.
“Yes, it’s dangerous,” Mr. Aman acknowledged. “But we have nothing to lose.”
Still, Mr. Aman said he believed he had broken a “taboo” in Gaza about communicating with Israelis. “I’m sure that if I have a speaker and speak in public in the streets — ‘Let’s talk with an Israeli’ — thousands of people would be here,” he said.
As it happened, talking with Israelis remained enough of a taboo to get Mr. Aman into trouble afresh.
He came in for vituperative criticism online, and early Thursday morning, a freelance Gaza journalist, Hind Khoudary, posted angry denunciations on Facebook of Mr. Aman and others on the call, tagging three Hamas officials, including Mr. Al-Bozom, to ensure it got their attention.
An arrest warrant was issued by the Hamas military prosecution, which handles accused collaborators with Israel, would-be suicide bombers and other serious security threats, Mr. Al-Bozom said. He did not identify or say how many other youth committee members had also been detained.
Separately, the Hamas armed wing and other militant groups issued a joint statement declaring that “normalization in all its forms and activities is treason, a crime, and religiously, nationally and morally unacceptable.”
Only days earlier, the Gaza Youth Committee formally joined the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an international coalition of groups seeking to foster Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. John Lyndon, the alliance’s chief executive, said that international law enshrined the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The youth committee’s work — “speaking to people right around the world about the situation in Gaza, and the need for them and the two million people living there to enjoy the freedom, peace and security that is denied to them — falls squarely within that right,” he said.
There was no word late Friday about Mr. Aman’s condition. Mr. Aman’s father, reached by telephone, said he and his wife had been told to bring clean clothes for their son to the Internal Security headquarters in Gaza City. They did as instructed, he said, but were sent away without being able to see him.
David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City.