Hamas “morality” campaign restricts civil liberties in Gaza

The Hamas government has gradually been implementing Islamist policies in the Gaza Strip. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - Gazans are caught between a rock and a hard place. While Israel continues to apply a crippling siege on the coastal territory, Gaza’s Hamas government is cracking down on civil and political liberties in what appears to be a campaign to slowly Islamicize Gaza.

Last week detectives from Gaza’s de facto Hamas government raided several stores and seized clothing which they alleged bore “immoral words.” Cotton shirts produced in Gaza City with the slogan “Porn Man Clothing” emblazoned on were confiscated.

Following the confiscation police arrested the manufacturers and took them in for questioning. Investigators said charges would be laid on grounds of immorality.

This latest crackdown on civil liberties follows a ban last week on women smoking argilah in public places. Hamas authorities say that women smoking the water pipes in public “contradict Palestinian traditions and values.”

“I laughed when I heard about it. I wanted to go out immediately and smoke the argilah in public,” said Riham Abdul Karim, Middle East Broadcasting’s (MBC) feisty female chief correspondent who manages a largely male staff.

“I’m against people being forced against their will to follow certain traditions. Gaza is already a very conservative society, and people can make up their own minds as to what behavior is right for them,” Abdul Karim told IPS.

Women have also been banned from riding on the back of motorbikes, while schoolgirls have been ordered to cover their hair. An earlier attempt to force all of Gaza’s female lawyers to cover their hair and wear long coats over their clothing was not enforced after international criticism and a public backlash.

“Hamas is actually very smart and pragmatic. This is not Iran. It seems they are incrementally implementing the Islamization of Gaza but in a way that the public slowly adjusts to and which doesn’t cause an international backlash,” says Abdul Karim.

“To this end Gaza’s de facto government has established soccer and horse riding activities for women albeit in a controlled and monitored environment,” Abdul Karim told IPS. These activities by women are considered un-Islamic and unfeminine by many Islamists.

“There is no doubt that Hamas is embarking on a major project to Islamicize Gaza and there are several reasons,” says Dr. Samir Awad from Birzeit University near Ramallah.

“On the one hand they are trying to fend off far-right Islamic extremists in the form of the Jayish al-Sunna, Jayish al-Islam and Jund Anser Allah groups in Gaza who want to establish Taliban-style governments,” said Awad. “On the other hand Hamas wants to prove to its Fatah foes, particularly the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah, that it can successfully establish Islamic rule in Gaza in order to win supporters in the West Bank and prove itself to doubting Gazans.”

A shoot-out between Hamas security forces and Jund Anser Allah gunmen in the southern Gaza Strip last year left more than 20 persons dead.

“Hamas is no longer interested in keeping up appearances when it comes to Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hamas started off being verbally critical of its arch enemies but this has moved towards the arrest of and imprisonment of Fatah activists and the banning of political opposition,” Awad told IPS.

Opposition political rallies have been forcibly broken up with sometimes bloody consequences. Several weeks ago ten-year-old Riham Abu Marasa was critically injured after she was accidentally shot while she was standing on the balcony of her uncle’s house in northern Gaza City.

Abu Marasa had been observing Hamas police violently breaking up a Hizb al-Tahrir gathering with beatings, clubs and shots fired into the air when one of the bullets hit her in the chest.

Hizb al-Tahrir was commemorating the 89th anniversary of the end of the Islamic Khalifa which saw large swathes of the Middle East and northern Africa living under Islamic rule. Organizers claimed they had been given verbal assurances that their gathering was legal.

Hamas, however, said the group lacked the necessary permit, and prior to the commemoration started confiscating portraits and banners. Simultaneously PA security forces in the West Bank prevented Hizb al-Tahrir members from gathering in Ramallah and arrested hundreds from buses at roadblocks leading into the city.

The Palestine Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza reported that several months earlier five nongovernmental organizations were raided and property confiscated by Gaza’s Internal Security Services (ISS). Critics have argued that the political association of the groups was the reason behind the raids.

PCHR has also demanded that both Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank and the Hamas authorities lift restrictions which they have imposed on the distribution of opposition newspapers.

Several weeks ago the Israeli authorities announced they would allow the delivery of several newspapers published in the West Bank into Gaza, as part of the easing of the siege.

When distributors from Gaza arrived at a Hamas Ministry of Interior checkpoint in northern Gaza they were prevented from crossing through to collect the newspapers and were told that the papers were banned in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the arrest of Fatah supporters, their imprisonment and alleged mistreatment in Gaza continues unabated. Hamas has said it is responding to the imprisonment and abuse of hundreds of its followers in the West Bank.

The PCHR reports that Fatah activists trying to leave Gaza have had their passports confiscated.

“The current situation is not looking promising especially in regard to unity as both leaderships’ positions become more entrenched,” says Awad.

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