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ISLAM RISING : Palestinians : Competing Visions of a Future State : A growing number in the Israeli-occupied territories look to the Koran as a political guide, worrying activists who want a secular Palestine.


NABLUS, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Fifteen years ago, only six mosques in Nablus held services at each of the hours appointed for prayer by devout Muslims. Today, more than 65 mosques do so--and they are crowded.

"We are winning--rather, I should say God is," Dr. Nihad Masry, a pediatrician active in the Islamic movement here, said with a soft smile. "It is a struggle, but throughout Palestine our people again are embracing Islam. In another generation, at most two, Islam should govern here."

That vision of an Islamic state in Palestine motivates a growing proportion, probably 40% of the 2 million Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza Strip as they seek an end to nearly 26 years of Israeli occupation.

"The Koran has everything we need to guide us," Sheik Hasan Deib, a religious leader and science teacher in Gaza City, said. "We will establish our state with Islamic political institutions, with economic and social policies based on the Koran, with a thoroughly Muslim character."

For Deib, Islamic Palestine may be established on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it will in time stretch from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River--"erasing Israel," as Deib put it--and become part of a massive Islamic state. "We should not be too impatient," he added. "This will come soon enough--it is God's will."

But this vision frightens many of those at the forefront of the long struggle for an independent and, most would insist, for a democratic and secular Palestine, a state they hope will emerge from the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

"An Islamic political system would be a disaster for Palestine," Dr. Shawkat Kilani, a Nablus physician and the founding president of An Najah National University, the West Bank's largest, commented. "It would bring civil war, it would bring the Israelis back, it would destroy us."

Yet, the struggle for an independent Palestine increasingly is a struggle between "nationalists" like Kilani and "Islamists" like Masry and Deib, between their competing visions of the future and their rival ways to reach it.

The struggle is far from an intellectual debate, as supporters of Fatah, the principal political movement within the Palestine Liberation Organization, battle the backers of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, an Arabic acronym meaning "zeal," for control of the institutions that will play key roles as Palestinians move toward self-government.

Slogans on the walls of the Nablus casbah--in black for Fatah, green for Hamas and Communist red for the Marxists--tell a story of intense rivalry, a reluctance to compromise, a willingness to fight each other ahead of Israel. Bullet holes from summer gun battles in the old city's close, crowded streets testify to the depth of the enmity between Fatah and Hamas.

"A struggle is under way for the soul of Palestine," Dr. Moustafa Barghouti, a Moscow-educated physician prominent in the pro-Communist Palestine People's Party, said in Jerusalem. "We have our own specific issues, of course, but a victory in Palestine will affect the course of other struggles across the Arab world. Although still not free, still not independent, little Palestine could be pivotal."

Elections at universities, chambers of commerce, lawyers groups, medical associations and other organizations are contested fiercely.

"The Islamists are 10 times stronger than they were a decade ago," Kilani said. "They are now demanding equivalent representation on the boards of our institutions . . . even a 'beliefs' test. 'We are 40%,' they say, 'and so we want 40%.' . . . "

The best schools in Nablus are already run by the Islamists, who have substantial funds from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to recruit top teachers and equip them with modern laboratories and computers. Their medical clinics and hospitals are proliferating at a time when those financed through the PLO are unable to pay their doctors and nurses. Their welfare system is extensive.

"The peasants, our fellaheen, say (the Islamists) care for them, that their help is real and tangible, not words, and we can't argue," Said Kanaan, a prominent Nablus businessman who supports the PLO, commented. "All these Hamas institutions have opened in the last decade, most in the last five years."

Pressure from Islamists is reshaping Palestinian society. A theater week in Nablus, intended to spark formation of a local theater group, was canceled when Islamists objected. Palestinian women, among the Arab world's most liberated, are adopting the modest dress favored by Islamists--only the face and hands should be seen.

And men find it awkward to be on the streets of Nablus or in the coffee shops after the city's muezzins have called them to prayer.

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