Gaza: Hamas tightens, then backs off, Islamic social strictures

Hamas appears to be trying to boost its Islamic credentials at home through restrictions on women's dress and men walking with women who are not family.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Prayer: A Palestinian girl attended a special service organized by Hamas at the end of Ramadan this year. The event was held in the al-Yamok stadium in Gaza City.

Like many high-schoolers in Gaza City, Diana Hawajiri often favors trendy jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and a head scarf. But when she showed up after the summer break, signs posted at her government-run school announced that it was mandatory for all female students to wear the jalibab – a loose dress designed to shroud the female figure.

Diana complied. And though the decision was later rescinded, she still wears the garment to avoid criticism both at school and in public, she says.

The warnings appeared at the same time a similar Hamas government-sponsored campaign condemned Western-style clothing and other "vices." The government also issued a decree ordering female lawyers to cover their heads in court.

After a media outcry, Hamas backtracked on some measures – and denied any plan to implement strict Islamic law in the territory it has controlled since ousting Fatah fighters two years ago.

A move to bolster Islamic credentials?

But residents and human rights activists say there is a clear discrepancy between Hamas's assurances and what is happening on the ground, signaling that the movement may be trying to bolster its Islamic credentials at home, where it has been under fire for failing to implement strict Islamic law, even as it pushes for recognition abroad.

Hamas, isolated diplomatically since it won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, now rules the Gaza Strip amid a tight Israeli-Egyptian blockade. It is fighting to gain the international legitimacy it needs to open Gaza's borders and take part in any high-level negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But the movement's charter also calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"There are people in the Hamas political leadership who understand very well the importance of public opinion," says Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foun­da­tion, a Washington-based think tank known for pro-Israeli stances. "They recognize that there are liberal elements of their non-Muslim support base – and Hamas would like to keep this support. But at the same, they are political Islamists."

Gaza's 1.5 million population is largely Muslim and conservative. But the enclave is also home to leftists, secular Fatah supporters, Christians, and even Muslims who oppose the institutionalization or imposition of Islam.

According to the Hamas charter, ­com­munitywide adherence to strict Islam­ic principles and armed resistance to Israeli occupation will grant Palestinians victory in the fight to regain their land.

A 'reccomendation,' and armed patrols

While no one has been tried or imprisoned for "un-Islamic" behavior, many locals say they have adjusted their behavior so as to avoid trouble. This summer, for example, saw a spate of reports of young men being detained and warned by policemen about their "immoral behavior" after being caught with women who were not relatives. Hamas-appointed chief justice Abdel Rauf al-Halabi, who sparked the female lawyer furor, says the government is simply drawing from the territory's already Islamic character. "Palestinians in Gaza are already Muslim; they do not need Islamization," says Mr. Halabi. "I simply reminded them of a law ... that requires [female] lawyers to cover their heads and to dress in accordance with the professional nature of their positions."

According to Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Gaza-based Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights, that law – passed during the British Mandate – is no longer valid. Mr. Shammala also says that despite government use of soft terms like "reminder" and "recommendation" regarding dress and behavior, armed patrols leave little room for interpretation.

"Everyone knows Hamas has the power," Shammala says. "And power doesn't recommend – it imposes. With the tools we know the Hamas government uses to control Gaza, if you receive a 'recommendation' from them, you won't take it as a piece of advice. It is an order."

Hamas is notorious for its heavy-handed and sometimes brutal security. While it ended Gaza's rampant crime and clan battles, it maintains its hold with a harsh mix of checkpoints, arrests, and patrols.

In August, at least 28 people were killed when Hamas took on an Al-Qaeda-inspired group that symbolically declared the Gaza Strip an Islamic emirate from a mosque in Rafah.

But successfully straddling international and domestic demands may reap Hamas a number of benefits, says Gaza-based political analyst Talal Okal. "The international community wants political solutions from Hamas, that's what is important to them," says Mr. Okal. "They want Hamas to recognize Israel and to renounce violence."

"If Hamas does this," Okal continues, "it will be so huge, the international community will likely let slide any social measures they implement at home. And Hamas knows this."•

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