IN a spartan, cinder-block room in Gaza City, Mahmoud Zahair, a leading Muslim activist, talks about Gaza's only growth industry: the Islamic movement he helps to lead. Starting in the early 1980s and drawing inspiration from the 1979 Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) began gathering strength, providing Gazans with solace in the face of brutal economic conditions and the heavy hand of Israeli occupation.
Today, says Mr. Zahair, Hamas is poised to lead.
``The change in our area is towards Islam and one manifestation is the UNRWA elections,'' he says, referring to balloting earlier this month for top positions in the United Nations agency that administers most of Gaza's schools, health clinics, and welfare services. ``The election is a hint of the mass transfer in Gaza from one ideology [the historically dominant secular nationalism of the PLO] to another [Muslim fundamentalism].'' If he is right, and many Israeli experts worry that he may be, Israel could find Gaza hotter to handle than ever.
The cleric says Gaza's twin Islamic movements, Hamas and the smaller, more-militant Islamic Jihad, have drawn strength from adversity. Informal soundings taken by Hamas more than a year ago indicated that 37 percent of Gazans over 16 backed Hamas or the Jihad - a figure some Israeli Army sources regard as conservative. Following the mass arrest and imprisonment by Israel of 200 Hamas leaders in May 1989, says Zahair, the movement has burgeoned. ``Since then, the mosques haven't been able to hold all the people,'' he says.
Islamic forces have been given another major boost by Israel's new, ultra-conservative government, installed last week.
``The change of government in Israel and the end of the peace process will affect people who are hesitating about the PLO policy'' of compromise with Israel, says Zahair. ``Our success comes from the failure of the nonfundamentalists to achieve any success on the political or social front.''
Using a stepped-up flow of outside money, much of it from the conservative Gulf states, Hamas has won the loyalties of many Gazans by providing a supplementary network of social and welfare services. ``Although the PLO has a lot of money, it fails to satisfy the people,'' says Zahair. ``It is well known that only Muslims can change social problems.''
Unlike their secular PLO counterparts, Hamas and Jihad are opposed to what they call the ``Zionist entity,'' insisting that Jews eventually will have to live in an Islamic state that will encompass all of Palestine.
Pointing to recent fundamentalist electoral successes in Algeria and Jordan, Zahair says it is just a matter of time before even an Islamic Palestine becomes an anachronism.
``Sooner or later, a pan-Islamic state will be established, uniting all the Islamic states under one government,'' he says.
Refocusing on more immediate gains, Zahair sizes up the achievements of the 30-month uprising: ``The picture has completely changed into the Islamic pattern of life in Gaza,'' Zahair says. ``This was not the way before the intifadah [uprising].''