Budget Weddings By Hamas

Also Terrorism

Wael Hashash once dreamed of a huge wedding with all the trimmings. That meant holding a feast for 500 guests and showering the bride with thick necklaces of gold.

For Mr. Hashash, who grew up with his widowed mother and four siblings in the city's Balata Refugee Camp, there was no money to throw a party for 500 guests. But, thanks to Hamas, he had 15,000.

The Islamic fundamentalist group, better known abroad for sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities, sponsored a mass wedding in Nablus's stadium July 9 before a rock-concert-size audience. It's an approach likely to keep winning fans.

In contrast with the Western tradition, an Arab groom and his family must foot the bill. The husband-to-be also must provide a dowry, buy the bride's wedding dress, and provide a new home.

Palestinians - who emphasize premarital chastity, usually marry young, and face a dismal economy - have often had to postpone matrimony until they can afford it.

But by reducing the cost of weddings, Hamas is finding a way to cure the wedding blues in a way that suits conservative Palestinian tastes - and waging a public-relations battle against the West.

At the stadium in July, men sat in rows of chairs; women in bleachers behind. Among the women guests sat Hashash's wife-to-be and the other brides. Hashash and the other grooms sat on stage in their best suits, Koran in one hand, green flag of Islam in the other. In all, 35 couples were honored with a night of fanfare for agreeing to be married in accordance with strict Islamic principles.

For Hashash, the mass wedding fit his ideology and gave him the ability to take part in an elaborate celebration he otherwise could not afford.

"If I wanted to make a wedding by myself, it would cost me $3,000. Instead, it's $70," he says, referring the small fee he had to pay to join.

As with Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islamic fundamentalists here owe much of their success to community-outreach work. Palestinians don't automatically associate Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, with bombings that kill innocent civilians and sabotage the chances of peace with Israel. They also think of Hamas's clinics, kindergartens, and loan societies - and now, even wedding ceremonies.

Hashash, a schoolteacher who turned religious in college while studying Islamic law, doesn't deny that this kind of beneficence helps attract Muslims who are much less committed than he is.

"Of course, Hamas's honest dealing with the people builds their belief in them," he says.

But Sheikh Ahmed Bitawi, who organized the first such wedding last summer, says the event is less about building political clout than about fighting the encroachment of American style.

"A uniform celebration eases the financial burden on these people, but money isn't the only reason," says Sheikh Bitawi.

"Our concern is to avoid the wrongdoing in this country that people have inherited from the West, like women taking off their veils and dressing provocatively, men and women dancing together, and the drinking of alcohol. We realize that you [in the West] have ultimately paid a price for such corruption. We want to show the West that Islam is not a severe religion, that there is joy, but within a limit."

Bitawi, a known figure in the social wing of Hamas here in Nablus, says such weddings will soon be held in other West Bank cities and Gaza. He also runs an Islamic matchmaking service for those looking for a spouse.

But he says that the ceremony is not a "Hamas wedding" because it has supporters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah Party in it, too. As such, he says it fulfills a third role: "It shows Israel that we are not weak and not fighting amongst ourselves."

Indeed, several of the grooms lack the beards almost invariably worn by Hamas activists. They say they are not financially strapped, but they were drawn by the organizers' selling points about demonstrating Palestinian unity and returning to the glory of Arab folklore: Grooms had been promised they would all enter the stadium on white horses.

In the end, only a handful of grooms actually get to ride in on horses after a prayer service at the nearby mosque. Hashash alone rides in on a white camel. The rest march in, arm in arm.

As they enter, the grooms are greeted by a choir and the cheers of the balloon-waving crowd. Periodic bursts of fireworks and two revolving disco lights attached to the front of the stage seem incongruous among the broad banners festooned above the grooms: "Pray for the Prophet Muhammad." "May religion return as the strongest of all."

In the audience, young activists serving as security guards wear identical T-shirts. On the front is a Hamas motto: "Islam is the solution"; on the back, "My identity is Islamic, and I was called to do my duty."

The night takes on the flavor of a fair. For refreshments, vendors outside sell bread and peanuts and bottles of fluorescent orange drink. When asked, most of the couples say they will still have their own wedding parties at home. After all, doesn't every bride and groom want to be the center of attention for a day?

"No, this is selfishness," Bitawi says. "This, too, is the thinking of the West."

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