The Islamic Hamas movement banned girls last month from riding behind men on motor scooters and forbade women from dancing at the opening of a folk museum. Girls in some public schools must wear headscarves and cloaks.
Signs of Hamas’s creeping Islamization are everywhere in Gaza, the Mediterranean coastal enclave that Hamas has run by itself since 2007. Gaza is already politically divided from the West Bank, the Palestinian territory administered by the secular Fatah movement.
"Ruling by itself, Hamas can stamp its ideas on everyone," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s al-Azhar University. "Islamizing society has always been part of Hamas strategy."
Hamas-Fatah infighting has diverted Palestinians from their quest for statehood and from presenting a united front at proposed U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel. With no Palestinian elections on the horizon — a vote scheduled for January was canceled — Hamas has free rein to rule in Gaza.
Hamas swept Palestinian legislative balloting in 2006 and took over the Gaza Strip a year later when its gunmen routed forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who still governs the West Bank. Syria and Iran back Hamas, while the U.S., its Middle East allies and the European Union support Abbas’s rule.
Caftans in Court
Some of the efforts are meeting resistance. When Supreme Court Justice Abdel Raouf Al-Halabi ordered women lawyers on July 26 to wear headscarves and caftans in court, attorneys contacted satellite television stations including Al-Arabiya to protest. On Sept. 6, Hamas’s Justice Ministry rescinded the directive.
Hamas officials say they have no plans to impose Islamic law. "What you are seeing are incidents, not policy," said Younis al-Astal, a Hamas legislator. "We want Islamic law to be the standard, but we believe in persuasion."
In an Oct. 13 speech, Abbas said Hamas was establishing an "emirate of darkness" in Gaza. Abbas’s Fatah movement has long viewed itself as a secular nationalist movement open to Muslims and Christians.
At the immigration office at Gaza’s border with Israel, a sign warns that alcoholic beverages, forbidden under Islam, will be poured out "in front of the owner."
The government’s Islamic Endowment Ministry has deployed Virtue Committee members to preach at public places to warn of the dangers of immodest dress, card playing and dating.
The opening of the Palestinian Heritage Museum on Oct.7 was meant to include a rendition of the dabke, a line dance performed by girls and boys. Except that no girls were allowed.
Black-shirted men from Hamas carrying AK-47s appeared at the gates of the museum, on Gaza’s waterfront, said Jamal Salem, the curator. They said girls shouldn’t dance because it wasn’t religiously proper. Nor could they share the stage for the inaugural speeches, said Salem.
"They are trying to take Palestinian culture and make it all their own," Salem said. "They say our traditions are against the law. Their law."
In August, headmasters of several schools ordered girls to don white head scarves and black cloaks called jilbabs. They sent several girls in jeans home, according to Gaza press reports. The Education Ministry later said the orders were unauthorized acts of individual school officials.
"The episodes had an effect anyway," said Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and human rights campaigner. "What parent wants to be seen to defy Islamic rules?"
Abusada, the Gaza political science professor, said Hamas only retreats from overt Islamization for fear of "provoking" such secular-ruled Arab countries as Egypt, with which it competes for support with Abbas.
"At the same time, Hamas is under pressure from some of its own members as well as even more radical groups to implant a purist version of Islam," he said.
Hamas is also wary of openly pressing for rule by religious edict because it undermines the group’s claim to legitimacy under Palestinian civil law, which set guidelines for the 2006 legislative vote, said Subhia Juma, a lawyer at the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza.
"Hamas backs off when it looks like they are governing under Islamic law and people complain," she said.
Israel, the U.S. and the EU say Hamas is a terrorist organization.
Swimming in Pants
In June, black-clad constables approached journalist Asmaa al-Ghoul, 27, and friends on a north Gaza beach, al-Ghoul said. Her offense: swimming in trousers and a blouse, not robes.
Male companions, including her brother, tried to defend her. Al-Ghoul said she phoned the government spokesman, who called off the police.
Hamas police spokesman Rafik Abu Hani said the crackdowns were abnormalities.
"Even here, we don’t make everyone wear Islamic-style beards," he said, pointing to a clean-shaven aide.
Everyone backs alcohol prohibition, Abu Hani said, and the motorcycle restriction is a safety issue.
Al-Astal, the Hamas legislator, said it wasn’t a coincidence that youth were the principal targets of the push.
"We are working on young people, the next generation, to be more correctly Islamic," he said. The older generation "is lost."
And as for motorcycles: "A girl has to hold onto a boy’s waist to ride in the back. Things can happen. You know what I mean," he said.