Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
July 23, 2009 - 12:00am

Seven months after Israel started a fierce three-week military campaign here to stop rockets from being fired on its southern communities, Hamas has suspended its use of rockets and shifted focus to winning support at home and abroad through cultural initiatives and public relations.

The aim is to build what leaders here call a “culture of resistance,” the topic of a recent two-day conference. In recent days, a play has been staged, a movie premiered, an art exhibit mounted, a book of poems published and a television series begun, most of it state-sponsored and all focused on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. There are plans for a documentary competition.

“Armed resistance is still important and legitimate, but we have a new emphasis on cultural resistance,” noted Ayman Taha, a Hamas leader and former fighter. “The current situation required a stoppage of rockets. After the war, the fighters needed a break and the people needed a break.”

Mr. Taha and others say that the military has replaced field commanders and restructured itself as it learns lessons from the war. The decision to suspend the use of the short-range Qassam rockets that for years have flown into Israel, often dozens a day, has been partly the result of popular pressure. Increasingly, people here are questioning the value of the rockets, not because they hit civilians but because they are seen as relatively ineffective.

“What did the rockets do for us? Nothing,” Mona Abdelaziz, a 36-year-old lawyer, said in a typical street interview here.

How long Hamas will hold its fire and whether it will obtain longer-range missiles — which it says it is seeking — remain unclear. But the shift in policy is evident. In June, a total of two rockets were fired from Gaza, according to the Israeli military, one of the lowest monthly tallies since the firing began in 2002.

In that tactical sense, the war was a victory for Israel and a loss for Hamas. But in the field of public opinion, Hamas took the upper hand. Its leaders have noted the international condemnation of Israel over allegations of disproportionate force, a perception they hope to continue to use to their advantage. Suspending the rocket fire could also serve that goal.

“We are not terrorists but resistance fighters, and we want to explain our reality to the outside world,” Osama Alisawi, the minister of culture, said during a break from the two-day conference. “We want the writers and intellectuals of the world to come and see how people are suffering on a daily basis.”

That suffering is quite real. An Israeli-led boycott limits economic activity here to farming and basic commerce, although Israel does allow about 100 trucks of food and medicine in each day, and more and more goods are coming in through desert smuggler tunnels from Egypt. Israel is experimenting with minor adjustments, allowing some equipment and glass in last week for the first time in a long time.

Because Israeli officials also believe that they must improve public relations and message management, the new focus on culture here sets up an intriguing battle for world opinion. Both sides argue that journalists show too much sympathy for the other.

But it may also bring unforeseen risks to the Islamist leaders of Hamas. The play currently seen nightly at Gaza City’s Shawa cultural center offers an example of how.

Called “The Women of Gaza and the Patience of Job,” it consists of a series of contemporary and historical scenes about suffering. And while it might be helping to create a sense of solidarity among the people of Gaza, it pushes some local limits.

In one satirical scene, for example, a Hamas fighter is standing over his rocket launcher about to fire at Israel when a woman asks about her brother, a fellow fighter.

Oh yes, he replies excitedly, her brother is a hero. He made the Israelis quake in their boots. “He hit Tel Aviv!”

From the audience emerges a dismissive laugh, for it knows how meaningless such boasting proved over the years.

After the show one recent evening, its writer, director and star, Said al-Bettar, said he wrote the scene that way to make the point that, “We were the victims of a big lie.” He added, “The people paid a heavy price and society is looking for someone to express its views clearly.”

Mr. Bettar, who is not a follower of Hamas and is popular here, said the government had not interfered with his work or criticized it. Besides mocking the rockets, he has done something else rather subversive — his entire cast (apart from himself) is female, and women sing on stage, something that is frowned upon by religious Muslims.

He said he wanted to challenge the conservatives of Gaza and added, “We need to engage with the world, not isolate ourselves.”

Abd Alkhalik Alaff, a poet and literature professor at the Islamic University, is the chief consultant on government efforts to use artists and writers to make Gaza’s case abroad. He said there were plans to award work that showed the plight of Gaza and added that a television series aimed at the holy month of Ramadan, which starts in late August this year, focused on Jerusalem. One of the first cultural products of the new campaign was given its premiere last week at the Islamic University. Written by Mahmoud Zahar, a physician who is among the most powerful Hamas leaders, it is a movie profile of Emad Akel, a commander of the Hamas military wing who was killed by Israel in 1993.

The two-hour film shows Mr. Akel’s use of numerous disguises, including as a religious Israeli settler. It was shot at the new media center on the grounds of what used to be called Gush Katif, a group of Israeli settlements in southern Gaza from which Israel withdrew four years ago.

A senior Hamas police commander who spoke on condition of anonymity said the focus on culture and away from rockets was appropriate for now. He said Hamas was working on increasing the range of its rockets. But he said: “We have made a decision not to fire. As long as Israel is committed to an unofficial truce, so are we.”

He pointed out holes punched in his building by Israeli missiles in late December and said the world needed to know. As he bid goodbye, this menacing man with a fighting past had world opinion on his mind. With a bow and slight smile, he said, “Thank you for coming to Gaza.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017