(CNN)Hamas has cracked down on popular protests in Gaza, carrying out beatings, arbitrary arrests and torture against protesters, human rights workers and journalists, Amnesty International said.
Hamas accused of violent crackdown on Gaza protests
"The crackdown on freedom of expression and the use of torture in Gaza has reached alarming new levels," said Saleh Higazi, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International. "We are sending a clear message to the Gaza authorities today that we are watching, and we will work to ensure that all those responsible for these violations are held to account."
The protests -- dubbed "We Want to Live" -- began last week, when hundreds of protesters gathered in refugee camps such as Jabaliya and Deir al-Balah, and in Gaza City and Khan Younis.
Men, women and children were among the demonstrators complaining about the dire economic situation and living conditions in Gaza, where youth unemployment runs at about 70%.
According to Amnesty, hundreds of protesters suffered ill-treatment during the Hamas clampdown, including one of its own research consultants, Hind Khoudary, who was detained and interrogated for three hours, Amnesty said, during which she was accused of being a spy and working as a foreign agent.
Ghazi Hamad, a Gaza Hamas leader, acknowledged that the group's security forces had made "some mistakes," but insisted Hamas does not accept violations of human rights. The Islamist group has ruled Gaza since a bloody battle in the enclave saw the Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by Hamas's secular rival Fatah, driven out in 2007.
"Unfortunately, some people are exploiting the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, but this issue should not be exploited politically for the sake of chaos," Hamad told CNN. "It is true that there are some mistakes from the security services, but this is under treatment, we do not allow violations of human rights or the use of violence against citizens."
Protesters held up signs reading: "We want to live with dignity," and: "We want bread, we want za'atar," referring to an inexpensive local spice that some say they can no longer afford.
Gaza's living conditions have grown worse because of chronic fuel and electricity shortages, compounded by an ongoing 12-year Israeli blockade of the coastal enclave. Water treatment facilities have been forced to close and raw sewage has spilled onto Gaza's beaches. Hospitals have struggled to treat patients, as residents of Gaza have had as little as four hours a day of power for much of the last few years.
In recent months, an increased supply of electricity, thanks in part to Qatar transferring tens of millions of dollars into Gaza, has improved living conditions. But it has done little to alleviate tensions.
One woman posted a video on social media railing against Hamas: "Are we forbidden from saying we are in pain? Let people say what they want, why do you oppress them? All of Gaza is unemployed. Our children have lost 12 years of their lives. Why? Each child of a Hamas official, as soon as he is 20 years old, will own an apartment, a car, a jeep, a building and be married, while our sons have nothing in this life."
On its social media account, Fatah posted pictures of its Gaza spokesman, Atef Abu Seif, in a hospital bed, with blood on his face, shirt and left arm, prompting condemnation from prominent Palestinians.
"We condemn the barbaric attack on our brother, Atef Abu Seif," said Mustafa Barghouti, a senior independent Palestinian politician. "We call for holding the perpetrators accountable for this brutal crime and stopping all attacks on citizens in the Gaza Strip."
But it remains unclear who carried out the assault. Hamas rejected suggestions it was responsible, echoing calls for the Interior Ministry to prosecute and punish those who carried it out.
The United Nations has added its concerns in recent days.
"I strongly condemn the campaign of arrests and violence used by Hamas security forces against protesters, including women and children, in Gaza over the past three days," Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process said in a statement on Sunday.
"I am particularly alarmed by the brutal beating of journalists and staff from the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) and the raiding of homes," he added.