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Hamas' new order exacts toll on Gazans

Hamas leaders impose harsh interpretations of Islamic law, use brute force to bolster administration in Gaza.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For years, the seaside Flower of the Cities resort was that rare place in the Gaza Strip where the dress code did not rule out bikinis. Now, with some of its cinder-block cabanas turned into prayer rooms, the beach club shows how Hamas is consolidating its hold here three months after seizing power.

Bushy beards and black head-to-toe cloaks for women have become common at the club, which the armed Islamic movement torched in June after routing the secular Fatah party on the streets. The facility has been rebranded the al-Aqsa Resort, with a new logo featuring the revered mosque complex in Jerusalem next to a beach umbrella. Hamas followers collect the $2.50 entrance fee.

Like the party it supported, the bikini crowd has disappeared, leaving the trash-flecked beach and murky swimming pool to Bassem al-Khodori and a half-dozen other Hamas supporters, who now have jobs at the resort.

"Before," said Khodori, 32, a cafeteria worker, "only the others were allowed."

Facing money shortages, a shrinking private sector and growing political resistance, Hamas leaders are increasingly imposing harsh interpretations of Islamic law and using brute force to bolster their isolated administration, which remains illegitimate in the view of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and his U.S.-backed government in the West Bank.

Reconciliation appears distant
Reconciliation between the two largest Palestinian parties -- now running parallel governments in what had been envisioned as the two territories of a Palestinian state with a single government -- appears as distant as when Abbas dissolved the Hamas-led power-sharing government after the fighting in June.

Many of Gaza's almost 1.5 million residents, who celebrated Israel's withdrawal two years ago only to fall into civil war soon after, have seen their lives improve in some ways and suffer in others as the result of the political split within the Palestinian Authority and Hamas's brand of rule here.

While Hamas has imposed order on Gaza's lawless streets, gunmen from its Executive Force, a 5,000-member paramilitary unit, have employed repressive tactics against Fatah supporters and local journalists.

International aid is again funding Palestinian government salaries, helping revive parts of Gaza's economy. But the closure of the cargo crossings from Israel for all but emergency aid is depriving Gaza's small manufacturers of raw materials. An estimated 85 percent of the territory's manufacturing sector has been shut down since June and more than 35,000 workers have been laid off, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

"We blame Hamas, the reason for all of this," said Hamdi Badr, 49, who two months ago shut down the clothing factory his family has owned since 1969. "But we don't really know what to do."

The steel shutters of storefront factories along Badr's street are closed, and the only sign of life is dogs sniffing through pyramids of trash. Abbas's government in the West Bank has cut off municipal funds that Gaza once used for garbage collection.

Badr flipped on fluorescent lights over rows of empty sewing machines, ceiling fans suddenly stirring the musty air. He employed 50 people when he closed his doors, and earned $4,000 a month. Now the people and profits are gone.

"It's always the citizens, people like me and the ones who worked here, who pay for these political disputes," he said.

Rise of harsh Islamic law, dress
Gaza's streets have taken on an increasingly Islamic cast in recent months. The improved everyday security has brought people back to the markets, beaches and parks, many of them women wearing for the first time the full black gown, gloves and face covering favored by the most conservative Muslims.

Gunmen from the Executive Force are posted along the main avenues and at intersections. In Friday sermons, imams appointed by the Hamas-run administration accuse Abbas of collaborating with Israel and the Bush administration.

The Hamas administration, led by deposed prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, is funding itself through utility, licensing and other taxes. Abbas has urged Gazans not to pay those bills to deprive Hamas of the money.

The taxes are generating enough to pay some of the roughly 30,000 government employees Abbas cut from the payroll because they were hired under the Hamas-led government. Many work for the Executive Force, now the main security branch in Gaza.

"We, for the first time, are operating a real security and justice system here," said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas hard-liner whose influence has grown since the June takeover. "Under the Fatah security forces, it was, A to Z, deeply corrupt."

Zahar, a surgeon who served as foreign minister in Hamas's first government, said the movement is unrepentant about routing Fatah in Gaza. He favors "military trials" for the former Fatah security officials who once persecuted Hamas followers in the strip, calling them "American-Israeli collaborators."

The Hamas-run television channel has popularized that characterization. One children's cartoon it aired recently depicted Fatah gunmen as mice, throwing dollars in the air, shooting children with U.S.-made weapons, unveiling Muslim women and firing at mosques before the Hamas "lion" comes to the rescue.

Zahar said Abbas's appointed government is "illegitimate," calling illegal the president's decision to withhold some funds from Gaza and his recent decree effectively banning Hamas from future elections. The Islamic movement, classified as a terrorist organization by Israel and the Bush administration, defeated Fatah in January 2006 parliamentary elections.

"How will he impose any of this in Gaza?" Zahar said. "He's a man that has lost all his credibility."

Fatwa issued against demonstrators
After Friday prayers in recent weeks, Fatah supporters have marched through Gaza's streets in protest against the Hamas administration. "Shia! Shia!" the demonstrators shouted, an insulting reference to the Sunni Muslim movement's inflexible Islamic character and financial support from the Shiite government of Iran.

Their numbers have swelled into the thousands, and Hamas's patience appears exhausted. The Palestinian Scholars League, an Islamic council dominated by Hamas clerics, issued a fatwa early this month prohibiting outdoor prayer.

The decree came days after members of the Executive Force beat and detained dozens of demonstrators, some of whom had tossed homemade noise grenades and stones at Hamas security compounds.

"All the mosques are controlled now by Hamas, so we said we would not pray in them but only outside," said Mohammed Yassin, 19, a Fatah supporter who works in a barbershop.

After he threw a noise grenade at Hamas forces one Friday last month, Yassin recalled, he ran away and hid near his house. But he said his neighbors told the Hamas men where he was hiding, and he was beaten with sticks and rifle butts. After being treated in the hospital, he was taken to jail.

"They told me, 'If you go to any more demonstrations, you are going to pay,' " Yassin said.

On the bulletin board in the Health Ministry's lobby hangs another recent fatwa, this one declaring that a partial strike by medical staff at Shifa Hospital runs counter to Islamic teachings.

For weeks, doctors at Gaza's largest hospital have been working only three hours each morning, leaving in limbo scores of patients needing post-surgery checkups, medications, examinations or signed permission to leave Gaza for treatment in Israel. Abbas has urged the doctors to stay off the job.

'We just live in gloom and disease'
The dispute stems from the recent firing of the hospital's director and its longtime public relations officer because, the doctors say, they supported Fatah.

"They told me that if I stayed a bullet might enter my head," said Jumah al-Saqa, 49, the former spokesman, who was removed from his office by Hamas gunmen last month after two decades in the post. "They want Hamas in all those jobs."

But Bassem Naim, the Hamas health minister, said the argument is about which government -- the one in Gaza or the one in the West Bank -- has the right to appoint senior ministry officials. He said the decision to strike was made as medicine shortages loom and "hundreds of patients" are being prevented from continuing regular treatments in Israel.

"It is a political strike, but it has nothing to do with whether one man is Fatah and one man is Hamas," Naim said. "This situation is dangerous, though, especially since the strike is supported by the government" in the West Bank.

Just before 11 a.m. one recent morning, scores of men, women and children waited outside numbered rooms, bloody bandages lashed around fingers, makeshift slings on tiny arms, X-rays clutched in old hands. The doctors left minutes later, leaving Thamam al-Bes outside Room 23 with no one to conduct her follow-up exam after last month's open-heart surgery.

"I'm waiting for a doctor, and now there are none," said Bes, 54, who had traveled from her home in a refugee camp in central Gaza. "We just live in gloom and disease."