Ethan Bronner
International Herald Tribune
June 16, 2008 - 5:02pm

GAZA: Cursing God in public here — a fairly common event in this benighted and besieged strip of Palestinian land — can now lead to prison. So can kissing in public. A judge ruled last week that a bank could not collect its contracted interest on a 10-year-old loan because Islam forbids charging interest.

One year ago, gunmen from Hamas, an Islamist anti-Israel group, took over Gaza, shooting some of their more secular Fatah rivals in the knees and tossing one off a building. Israel and the West imposed a blockade, hoping to squeeze the new rulers from power. Yet today Hamas has spread its authority across all aspects of life, including the judiciary. It is fully in charge. Gazans have not, as Israel and the United States hoped, risen up against it.

"The Palestinian criminal code says there should be no improper behavior in the streets," the new chief justice, Abed al-Raouf Halabi, explained in an interview, pulling the code book from his breast pocket.

"It is up to judges to interpret what that means," he said. "For us that means no cursing, no drinking and no kissing in public. In the past these things were ignored."

Gaza has always been poor and pious, distinct from the more secular and better off West Bank. But a year of Hamas rule has made it more so. The notion of Gaza as an enduringly separate entity is solidifying, making it less likely that Palestinians might agree even among themselves on peace with Israel.

Compared with a year ago here in Gaza, more women are covered, more men are bearded, Internet sites are filtered and non-Hamas public gatherings are largely banned. With the Israeli closure greatly reducing the supply of fuel, spare parts and other vital goods, less sewage is treated and more fish are contaminated. Gazans feel trapped and helpless.

But assessing exactly how bad it is — how angry or loyal people feel, how effective or cruel the closure has been, how truly impoverished Gaza has become — is a delicate and politically fraught activity as three recent days of reporting here and dozens of interviews showed.

Those who reject Israel's policy as evidence of its ill will make it sound like Gaza has turned into Somalia. It has not. At the same time, those who consider it their role to defend Israel in all it does make it sound as if the 70 truckloads of goods that Israel permits in daily have prevented any real suffering. They have not.

Even more politically complicated is the question of how the closure has affected Hamas's authority and popularity. Many in the West and Israel would very much like to believe Hamas is in trouble. And it is easy to find people here who hate the government and its black-clad police, even among some who voted for Hamas in the January 2006 elections that gave it a majority in the Palestinian legislature and led to 18 months of tense power sharing before the takeover.

But those in Israel who watch most closely — Arabic speaking security officials — say that while the closure is pressing Hamas, it is not jeopardizing it.

"Gaza is totally under Hamas's control," said one of three such major officials, all of whom agreed to speak only if identified in this vague manner, and all of whose assessments were the same.

"What happened in Gaza a year ago was not really a coup," a second official said. "Hamas's takeover was a kind of natural process. Hamas was so strong, so deeply rooted in Palestinian society through its activities in the economy, education, culture and health care, and Fatah was so weak, so corrupt, that the takeover was like wind blowing over a moth-infested structure."

For months before the takeover, life in Gaza, with its 1.5 million inhabitants, was deeply insecure as Fatah and Hamas gunmen fought for control of the streets and institutions. Hamas had a parliamentary majority but Fatah, through the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, still officially controlled the security apparatuses and ministries.

Now, even many of those who detest Hamas say that security has returned to daily life as a result of its takeover.

"Hamas is strong and brutal but very good at governing," observed Eyad Serraj, a British-trained psychiatrist who runs a group of mental health clinics and is a secular opponent of Hamas. "They are handing out coupons for gas. They have gotten people to pay for car registration. They are getting people to pay their electricity bills after years of everyone refusing to. The city and the hospitals are cleaner than in many years."

While the West Bank-based government of President Abbas bars its nearly 80,000 employees from showing up at work in Gaza to protest the takeover, it continues to pay their salaries here. With no work and a steady wage, there is a once-a-month rush on the ATM's and a fair amount of disposable income spent in handsome coffee shops surrounded by Poinciana trees now in bloom. New restaurants have opened recently to take advantage of this phenomenon.

The relative scarcity of goods makes it both harder and easier for Hamas to maintain control. It is harder because the basic role of government, to provide for its people, is a challenge. It is easier, however, because what little comes through is inevitably channeled through Hamas, which collects a tax on it.

Many of the goods in Gaza now come through smuggler tunnels from the Egyptian Sinai. There are scores of such tunnels and while the Israeli and American authorities have complained that the tunnels provide a pathway for arms, their more central role is for computers, cigarettes, gasoline and clothing. Hamas taxes everything that comes through.

At a Gaza City clothing store for women and girls, the owner, Wael, 31, who considered it unsafe to give his last name, said that while he used to get his goods from Israel and Turkey, now everything in his shop comes from Egypt in flour sacks smuggled in the tunnels. The markup on a bundle of $5,000 worth of goods is $3,000, he said, some of it for the smuggler, some of it for taxes to Hamas.

"Everything that has happened here has been a terrible mistake," he says of the election victory and subsequent takeover. "It is a mistake for Islamists to get into power. But what can we do? Hamas is even stronger than a year ago. They can take me and put me away whenever they want."

That is apparently what happened to Mohamed Zughbur, a Fatah supporter who was taken from his home two months ago by Hamas forces, imprisoned and tortured and accused of collaboration with Israel, according to Moustafa Ibrahim, a researcher for the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights.

He said that when his organization complained to the Hamas authorities, they pointed to the United States and the Guantánamo Bay prison; a collaborator, they said, can not be treated with kid gloves. He and other advocates say that Gaza was not exactly a model of individual liberty when Fatah was in power, but the changes of the past year are real and likely to get worse.

While few dispute that Hamas has changed Gaza, a more complicated question is whether ruling Gaza has changed Hamas. Many in the movement and even outside it say that it is less ideological that it was at its founding or even a year ago.

Whereas Hamas says it will never recognize Israel, its leaders say that if Israel returned to the 1967 borders, granted a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem and dealt with the rights of refugees, Hamas would declare a long-term truce. This is not that different from what the rest of the Arab world says or the Fatah position in peace talks with Israel.

Jawad Tibi, a health minister under the Fatah government and a Fatah advocate in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, is angry at Hamas. Still, he said, "Hamas is talking about a 30-year truce which is no different really from what we want. Hamas is Fatah with beards."

Sayed Abu Musameh is one of the founders of Hamas and now a member of the legislature. One of the old guard moderates, he is also on the board of Hamas's first research organization just opening here. It is called Beit al Hikma, the House of Wisdom, and seeks to build bridges with the West.

"We are not seeking all of Palestine, only the '67 borders," he said. "Then there would be a truce for a very long period to pave the way for the next generation to resolve the issues we are paralyzed to resolve."

He added that Hamas's rocket attacks on southern Israeli communities are a mistake and that the group's links to Iran are out of necessity, not desire. He said that while the top Hamas leadership did not agree on these last two points, he was not the only advocate to believe them and more would do so if there were encouragement.

Americans who have visited the top Hamas leader in Syria, Khaled Meshal, including former President Jimmy Carter and Henry Siegman of the U.S./Middle East Project, say a real change is under way, especially regarding the group's willingness to live next to Israel. So far, few American or Israeli officials have taken their assertion seriously.

Indeed, Israel's security officials who seem realistic about Hamas's control in Gaza dismiss the idea that Hamas has changed in any fundamental way worth Israel's time. They see the talk of a truce as tactical, not strategic, especially given the toxic words of its leaders and media and the continuing rocket and mortar attacks on Israel.

As a result, Gaza seems set to continue as is for some time — isolated, polluted, unhappy, days filled with waiting on line for provisions, but not explosive.

Noha Abu Ramadan, an office manager, typifies Hamas's supporters. Covered in Muslim modesty, she efficiently works a telephone, fax machine and cellphone while greeting a pair of visitors.

"Isn't it nice to have such light traffic?" she joked about the lack of fuel. "It keeps the accident rate down." Asked her view on how things were going, she grew more serious.

"Israel is trying to pressure us to make us forget that the real problem is the occupation," she said. "Hamas was elected like any government and never given the chance to govern. Life is hard here but it has never exactly been perfect. We can take it. The Koran teaches that in the end we will be victorious."


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