Cursing God in Gaza – a fairly common event in the benighted and besieged strip of Palestinian land – can now lead to prison. So can kissing in public. A judge ruled this month that a bank could not collect its contracted interest on a 10-year-old loan, because Islam forbids charging interest.One year ago, gunmen from Hamas, an Islamist anti-Israel group, took over Gaza, shooting some of their more secular Fatah rivals in the knees and tossing one off a building. Israel and the West imposed a blockade, hoping to squeeze the new rulers from power.
Yet today, Hamas is fully in charge. Gazans have not, as Israel and the U.S. had hoped, risen up against it.
“The Palestinian criminal code says there should be no improper behavior in the streets,” said the new chief justice, Abed al-Raouf Halabi, explained in an interview, pulling the code book from his breast pocket.
Gaza has always been poor and pious, distinct from the more secular and better off West Bank. But a year of Hamas rule has made it more so. The notion of Gaza as an enduringly separate entity is solidifying, making it less likely that Palestinians might agree even among themselves on peace with Israel.
Compared with a year ago here in Gaza, more women are covered, more men are bearded, Internet sites are filtered, and non-Hamas public gatherings are largely banned. With the Israeli closure greatly reducing the supply of fuel, spare parts and other vital goods, less sewage is treated and more fish are contaminated. Gazans feel trapped and helpless.
But assessing exactly how bad it is – how angry or loyal people feel, how effective or cruel the closure has been, how truly impoverished Gaza has become – is a delicate and politically fraught activity as three recent days of reporting here and dozens of interviews showed.
Those who reject Israel's policy as evidence of its ill will make it sound as if Gaza has turned into Somalia. It has not. At the same time, those who consider it their role to defend Israel in all it does make it sound as if the 70 truckloads of goods that Israel permits in daily have prevented any real suffering. They have not.
Even more politically complicated is the question of how the closure has affected Hamas' authority and popularity. Many in the West and Israel would very much like to believe Hamas is in trouble. And it is easy to find people in Gaza who hate the government and its police, even among some who voted for Hamas in the January 2006 elections that gave it a majority in the Palestinian legislature and led to 18 months of tense power-sharing before the takeover.
But those in Israel who watch most closely – Arabic-speaking security officials – say that while the closure is pressing Hamas, it is not jeopardizing it.
For months before the takeover, life in Gaza, with its 1.5million inhabitants, was deeply insecure as Fatah and Hamas gunmen fought for control. Hamas had a parliamentary majority but Fatah, through the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, still officially controlled the security apparatuses and ministries.
Now, even many of those who detest Hamas say that security has returned to daily life as a result of its takeover.
“Hamas is strong and brutal but very good at governing,” said Eyad Serraj, a British-trained psychiatrist who runs a group of health clinics and is a secular opponent of Hamas. “They are handing out coupons for gas. They have gotten people to pay for car registration. They are getting people to pay their electricity bills after years of everyone refusing to. The city and the hospitals are cleaner than in many years.”
Gaza seems set to continue as-is for some time – isolated, polluted, unhappy, days filled with waiting on line for provisions, but not explosive.
“Israel is trying to pressure us to make us forget that the real problem is the occupation,” said Noha Aby Ramadan, an office manager. “Hamas was elected like any government and never given the chance to govern. Life is hard here, but it has never exactly been perfect. We can take it. The Quran teaches that in the end we will be victorious.”