Kevin Peraino
Newsweek (Special Report)
October 23, 2007 - 11:23am

At the Game Zone video arcade in Gaza City, the most popular new attraction, according to its owner, Hamdi Abu Sido, is the "redemption machine." Winning involves using a joystick to successfully direct a mechanical puppet on a surf board—the "Shark Hunter"—to wave-riding glory. If you win, the machine spits out a string of white tickets printed with the word WONDERFUL that can be redeemed at the counter for prizes. Game Zone is one of the few places that wealthier Gazan families can bring their kids for a break from the seemingly endless conflict of their region. The only time things get tense at the arcade is when the power flickers off—as it does several times a week—prematurely restarting the electronics. If you've ever flipped the switch on a kid in the middle of a video game, you know what kind of rage that can spawn. Abu Sido just shrugs. "This is Gaza," he says, chuckling.

On a recent night I sat at a table at the Game Zone with Mona and Ibrahim Shawan, both of whom work at Gaza's Palestinian Center for Human Rights. "There was another one killed," Mona told me, as her 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twin boys ran around the place beaming and collecting strings of tickets. Mona was referring to another honor killing; even after the stir caused by the murder of the three Juha sisters a week ago, the trend was continuing, she said. Mona nodded at her kids across the room. "They don't understand what's happening," she said. "We just try to give them a normal life." The Shawans have been planning to take their kids to Cairo for two summers straight now, but their trips always seem to get cancelled. Last summer it was war with Israel, this year it's because the Hamas takeover of Gaza has left the border crossings still locked shut for most residents. "People are really depressed," added Mona's husband, Ibrahim, pointing out that the Game Zone is their palliative. "Even in jail you have something to do for fun—ping-pong or something. That's the same thing we're doing here. We're trying to escape."

People seemed to be playing redemption games all over the Gaza Strip last Thursday, when I spent the evening driving around the city to take a look at some of the ways Gazans distract themselves from war. "Gaza nights!" my translator, Hassan, cried as we cruised through the city with the windows down, open to the warm sea breeze. Near the city's Palestine Square, choked with rows of idling yellow taxis, we crashed a card game being played in the arc light by a quartet of stolid young men sitting around a table covered with a gray wool blanket. "Hand rummy," said 31-year-old Rami Nasr, scooping up a pile of playing cards. "We're just wasting time. We don't have jobs." The men sipped cloudy Nescafé out of plastic cups. "Last round," Rami said, before voicing the game's most important rule: "Loser pays."

A moment later, when I started asking about politics, I learned the game's second-most-important rule. "No politics," groaned Bashir al-Hadidi, the proprietor of the sidewalk clubhouse. He was older then the card sharps, bearded and wearing a pair of gold-frame eyeglasses. "Let's not talk about politics. You want to know about cards, not the situation. If we talk about politics, we'll die. You can never say the right thing. You want us to die? Let's play cards. Am I wrong?" The players murmured their assent.

The skittishness about politics is probably at least partly to do with the fact that the new rulers of Gaza are not particularly fond of card playing, and especially gambling, which are frowned on in Islam. During the fighting seven weeks ago, Hamas militiamen stormed through a domino hall just off Palestine Square, smashing two televisions and the refrigerator, and causing $2,000 worth of damage. "They don't believe in having fun, in being entertained," said the place's owner, Morsei al-Shakouk. (A couple of years ago Hamas cofounder Mahmoud Zahar coolly explained to me that gambling is "not our style.")

Still, when I visited Zahar at his house in Gaza City last week, he seemed to be playing a redemption game of his own—albeit without the prohibitions on politics. His hand had been significantly strengthened when Hamas militants stormed Gaza's intelligence complexes and seized what Zahar described to me as "tons" of secret intelligence documents. The Islamist is now considered the most powerful figure in Gaza, thanks at least in part to the confiscated paperwork. He warned me that the documents reveal contacts between the U.S. and Palestinian intelligence operatives all over the world. "I have a lot of information," Zahar told me, opening a bird's-egg blue folder and fanning out a sheaf of carefully annotated documents on the letterhead of the Palestinian General Intelligence directorate. "We have names—names."

One of Zahar's favorite insults is to accuse rivals of playing "a dirty game"; since I've known him I've heard him accuse Israel, the U.S. and Fatah all of dirty gamesmanship at one point or another. The charge is one of Hamas's most potent public-relations weapons, and it has been frequently used to hammer away at what Zahar insists is the corruption of Fatah politicians. The Islamist likes to frame the seizure and release of the intelligence files as an example of newfound transparency in Gaza's government. "We have to open the gates," Zahar told me. "This should be known to the Palestinians!" Still, it occurred to me that Zahar might now be playing a bit of a dirty political game himself with his strengthened hand.

Back at the arcade, for just one night, Mona Shawan tried to forget about all the dirty games being played in Gaza—about blackmail and honor killing, kidnapping and revenge. She smiled as her daughter, Randa, carried a string of WONDERFUL tickets to the redemption counter. The girl came back to our table showing off a new yo-yo. But the human-rights activist's face fell when she spotted her twins, Mohammad and Ahmad. She shook her head slowly as she looked at the plastic toy packages they were carrying. The boys had traded their winnings for a couple of guns.


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