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In Gaza, Hamas walks an ideological tightrope

Tensions grow between the party's pragmatists and hardliners as groups with more radical visions gain adherents.

July 13, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY — Rifles popping and flags waving, the funeral cortege for the militant, his shrouded body hoisted on a stretcher, wound through breezeless streets, passing beneath the window of Jamil Mezher, who moments earlier had mentioned that such extremists were an incessant danger to the Gaza Strip.

The dead man, Hasam Harb, was at once a martyr and an omen. A member of Islamic Jihad, he was killed by an Israeli rocket, a fighter revered by the boys scurrying after his procession. But he was also part of an ideology seeking to capitalize on the unrest between Palestinian political parties and turn Gaza into a radical Islamic state.

"Many young people are now willing to participate in these jihad groups," said Mezher, a member of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a left-leaning faction within the Palestinian Authority. "There has been a large number of attacks against Internet cafes and entertainment places in recent years. In our history, we have never had violence like this before. They want us to be more Islamic. They bombed our cultural center the other day because we offered traditional Palestinian dancing."

The tug of religious extremism has intensified in recent years. Beneficiaries of smuggled weapons and the region's poverty and frustration, these organizations have found cover under the militant group Hamas, which last month seized control of Gaza during clashes with the more secular Fatah party.

Hamas says it disavows Islamic radicalism but faces tension between its religious hard-liners and pragmatists who want to convince the West that it is not a political mask for jihad.

The wider challenge for Hamas is whether it can, or even wishes to, rein in independent Islamist groups seeking to impose Sharia law that would limit other religions and force women to wear hijabs or head scarves. These organizations have made Hamas, which has overwhelming support here and is viewed by the West as a dangerous political movement, appear less threatening in the spectrum of Islamic voices.

Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas on Tuesday for what he claimed were increasing numbers of terrorists inside Gaza. "Thanks to the support of Hamas, Al Qaeda is entering Gaza," said Abbas.

Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri said, "Hamas has no link to Al Qaeda." He accused Abbas of "trying to mislead international opinion to win support for his demand to deploy international forces in Gaza."

Deciphering the strands of Islamic militant cells, their influence, clan allegiances and how they are woven into Gaza's larger factional picture is complicated.

A June 14 attack on the Rosary Sisters School, for example, suggested both a criminal element and an underlying Islamist fervor against Christians. During fighting between Fatah and Hamas, Fatah forces used the school roof as strategic high ground. Hamas' main military wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, fired crudely manufactured rocket-propelled grenades and stormed the campus.


Extensive damage

Hamas routed Fatah, and much of the $100,000 worth of damage to the school -- which has 520 students, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslims -- was caused by combat. But amid scorched walls and broken glass, the chapel for the school's three nuns was ransacked, altar crosses were broken or bent, a statue of Jesus was smashed. Upstairs, the nuns' rooms were burned and vandalized.

"This was an attack against the school itself," said Hanidi Maswak, the deputy director, who crunched over glass in the blackened hallways the other day. "It wasn't just a crime or looting. In the beginning, Hamas battled Fatah security men, but then some of them realized this was a Christian place and intentionally did this damage. Hamas will not undermine [religious] extremists like this. If Hamas can't control them, we'll go back to blood feuds and revenge."

Across town at the Holy Family Catholic Church and School, a first-grade teacher, who gave her name only as Madlan, watched her son run with a paper kite through the courtyard. The school's principal didn't want to talk, except to say that "things were critical."

Madlan was also unsure of what to say and how to gauge the new dynamics for Gaza's 3,000 Christians, who for generations have enjoyed relative calm amid a Palestinian leadership that had not been religiously radical.

"The first day after the fighting I was stopped by Hamas and they said now this is an Islamist country," she said. "But I don't think Christians are being targeted yet. There was a speech a few days later [by a Hamas leader] and he spoke of Palestinian unity between religions and that calmed things. But if we had to leave, where would we go? I am a Palestinian."

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