Hamas May Not Be Moderate, but It's Cracking Down on Extremism

Hamas is engaged in a delicate dance, trying to strengthen its regime, while coping with violent factions.

Many Israeli commentators have argued recently that Hamas is eager to complete the deal to free Gilad Shalit because of the lack of achievements it has to show its public in the Gaza Strip. However, quite a number of Palestinian commentators there claim that the status of the Islamic movement has stabilized of late, in particular because of its ability to help distressed residents of the Strip by means of its network of charitable organizations. Others propose that the real threat to Hamas today comes from the direction of Islamic extremism, which in another few years is liable to become a significant factor and to present a serious challenge to the Hamas regime.

Last Friday the Israel Defense Forces attacked a group of men launching Qassam rockets in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. One Palestinian was killed and three more were wounded. According to various assessments, the men belonged to a cell of extreme Islamist activists affiliated with what is called the Jaljalat movement.

In recent months, it and other small organizations have been gathering momentum. For its part, Hamas is trying to embrace the extremists and convince them to act within its laws, even as these factions cause harm to Hamas and its public support - especially as they depict the organization as a collaborator with Israel that has given up the principle of jihad. Many of the members of Jaljalat, for instance, are former Hamas activists who left the organization because they felt it had become too moderate. They are now trying to spearhead a more extreme policy with respect to Israel.

Among these radical groups are the Army of the Nation, the Army of Islam, Jund Ansar Allah, as well as Hizb ut Tahrir, which is not involved in fighting per se, but rather confines itself to propaganda activities.

The tension between the small radical groups and the Hamas government is manifested particularly in the attempts of extremists to take over mosques, as in the Rafah area, a few weeks ago, where the Jund Ansar Allah has been active. Still, it is Hamas that is in control in Gaza and its rule has only become more firmly established since the coup of June 2007. Fatah has nearly ceased to exist in the public domain in the Strip. At the same time, Hamas is making great efforts to stave off the rising popularity of the extremists, such as by establishing such beneficial institutions as an Islamic bank and a body charged with overseeing halal products.

Modesty and mannequins

Hamas is offering afternoon religion lessons in government offices and is also encouraging the activities of sharia courts at the expense of the civil ones. In the schools and universities, religious curricula have been expanded. Islamic reconciliation committees operate throughout the Strip, mediating in disputes between families and individuals. Many markets and shops close now on Fridays, and men and women sit in separate areas on the beaches. The Hamas government prohibits the wearing of immodest garments in schools, and favors uniforms for students.

Furthermore, the parliament in Gaza, which consists entirely of members of Hamas, recently discussed the implementation of sharia-style punishment (for example, cutting off a thief's hand), though no decisions have been taken yet. Unmarried couples are forbidden to be together in cars or isolated places, and young women are asked to refrain from "immoral talk." Hamas is also warning owners of Internet cafes not to allow people to access problematic - such as pornographic - Web sites. Women are forbidden to ride on motorcycles. The Hamas ministry of religion puts up posters throughout the Gaza Strip encouraging women to dress modestly, not only in the hijab, but also in long dresses.

Merchants are asked not to dress female store-window mannequins in immodest garments, as well as to remove their heads. Such requests do not appear in formal orders per se, but are still in the form of recommendations. Hence Hamas is able to deny that the government is ordering citizens to be more stringently Islamic.

On the eve of Id al-Adha (the feast of the sacrifice) last weekend, Hamas representatives paid visits to more than 30,000 homes (in which about a quarter of a million people live), to assess the level of poverty. The incidence of poverty has been breaking new records in the Strip and recently has been spreading northward.

It is charitable organizations and not necessarily the Hamas government that are involved in social-welfare activities in Gaza. Among the more prominent of these groups today is Al Falah, which began operation in 2001 and is run by a well-known Hamas figure, Ramadan Tanbura. These charities have become a complementary arm of the government and are helping to stabilize its standing. Hamas is investing a lot of money, for example, in the Al Takaful program for mutual aid, which provides significant numbers of jobs for unemployed laborers.

Hamas has succeeded in ameliorating the effects of the Israeli blockade of the Strip by means of the tunnels operating in Rafah. Israel's attacks, and the deaths of more than 100 people from the collapse of tunnels, are not affecting the smuggling operations. Indeed the underground network has recently been expanded to include a system of central and secondary tunnels.

In any event, the blockade is not hermetic. Israel allowed the entry of thousands of sheep before Id al-Adha, and permission has also been given to export flowers. Nearly 15,000 foreigners have visited Gaza this year. The extent of the goods being brought in by foreign organizations has increased by hundreds of percentage points, compared to last year. At the same time, Hamas officials are expecting that an agreement to free Gilat Shalit will eventually lead to an easing of the blockade, which could result in immeasurable improvement of the Gazan economy.