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In December, 2008, according to the London-based Arab daily Al Hayat, the Hamas parliament in Gaza voted in favor of a law allowing courts to mete out sentences in accordance with Shari'a law. According to the bill, if approved, courts will be able to condemn offenders to a series of violent punitive measures that include whipping, severing hands, crucifixion and hanging. The bill reserves death sentences to people who negotiate with a foreign government "against Palestinian interests" and engage in any activity that can "hurt Palestinian morale." According to the Al Hayat report, any Palestinian caught drinking or selling wine would suffer forty lashes at the whipping post, and convicted thieves would have their right hand amputated.
Whether such a law passes or not, the shadow of Shari'a law is descending on Gaza. In November 2009, Shin Bet (Israel's internal security service) issued a Report describing how Hamas has begun instituting Islamic law and thought in all areas of Gaza life since its violent takeover of the area in June 2007. Should Israeli security forces withdraw from Judea and Samaria, it is a safe bet that the implementation of Shari'a law would follow a Hamas take-over there as well.
The Report's main points include...
In addition, according to the Jerusalem Post, every Gaza mosque now has an Amir al-jamia or "head of the community" who functions as a kind of political commissar on behalf of the authorities, observing the prayer habits of all members of the mosque, and intervening and offering help "where insufficient devotion is diagnosed".
Similarly, Islamic charitable organizations are increasingly replacing elected local governments as the providers of social services. The result has been to establish "channels of material dependence between the public and the Hamas organization".
The imposition of strict Shari'a law by Hamas comes as a direct result of significant challenges to its religious authority. At the Ibn-Tamiya mosque in the Gaza town of Rafah, Salafi-jihadi preacher-physician Sheikh Abdel-Latif Moussa, known as Abul-Nur al-Maqdisi, and his Jund Ansar Allah ("Warriors of the Companions of God") followers recently challenged Hamas's Islamic credentials claiming that it had not gone far enough in imposing Shari'a law in Gaza. They maintained, among other things, that Hamas had joined a democratic political process thereby violating Islam. In the process, they declared an Islamic Emirate in Gaza, posted statements supportive of Osama bin Laden, hosted terrorist training videos on their website, and (according to Hamas) acted against Israel without Hamas authorization. On August 14th, the group's challenge to Hamas's religious authority was ruthlessly crushed in a bloody confrontation - and this may only be the beginning.
The challenge raised by Salafi-jihadist groups in Gaza will no doubt continue to threaten the ideological foundations upon which Hamas has established its rule. Gaza Salafi-jihadists say Hamas surrendered its credentials as an Islamic resistance group when it declared a unilateral cease-fire after a 22-day war with the Jewish state that ended Jan. 18. Internet cafes have been bombed, institutions with Christian affiliations burned down, foreign schools and wedding parties (due to music and dancing) have been attacked, and a new Salafi-jihadist group called the Brigade of Swords of Righteousness has already declared its obedience to the Warriors of God, and has warned Gazans to stay away from government buildings, security headquarters, mosques attended by Hamas leaders, and other official buildings. The group now considers these legitimate targets.
Thus, Hamas hesitation at firing missiles at Israel in the wake of the Gaza war has become ammunition for the Salafi-jihadists; every effort made by Hamas to interfere with Salafi-jihadist actions against Israel from Gaza is deemed a betrayal of Islam, and any negotiations between Hamas and the Israelis on opening Gaza's borders or facilitating prisoner exchanges exposes Hamas to Salafi-jihadist condemnation. There is also widespread Palestinian criticism of Hamas's consent to major concessions in the deal for trading Israeli soldier-hostage Gilad Shalit for nearly a thousand Palestinian terrorists who would be banished from the country upon their release from Israeli prisons. For many Palestinians, these terrorists are seen as "resistance leaders." In short, these Islamists believe that Hamas has been neutralized and has given up the fight.
Until now, Hamas's dilemma has centered on how to translate its religious rhetoric (Shari'a law) into actual policies without alienating either its religious or secular supporters. There is a vast difference between religious theory and religious practice. In Gaza, while opinion polls calling for the implementation of Shari'a law tend to be popular, actual implementation of Shari'a law has not been so well-received. In Jordan, after the Muslim Brotherhood did well in the 1989 election, the organization discovered very quickly that limiting the interaction between males and females in public places, especially at sporting events involving their children, was less than popular amongst the general population. Eventually, that law was overturned.
Hamas may find that Gazans will react much the same way to the imposition of strict Shari'a law. It is possible that the more Shari'a law is implemented in Gaza, the more divided that society will become. Hamas's traditional religious supporters who continue to demand greater implementation of Shari'a law are becoming more alienated and are beginning to seek more radical Salafi-jihadist movements willing to apply the full force of Shari'a throughout Palestinian society, while Hamas's more moderate supporters (that is, those who voted primarily against Fatah corruption rather than for Hamas) favor Shari'a theory over its actual implementation. Thus, the rising Salafi-jihadi presence represents a significant religious threat for Hamas.
This dilemma was borne out by a recent poll undertaken by Stan Greenberg of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research. The poll suggests that (as of September, 2009) 58% of Gazans disapprove of Hamas' performance (42% strongly disapprove) including its implementation of Shari'a law. While Hamas won the January 2006 Gaza election largely due to Fatah's corruption and its rejection of the peace process, Gazans are discovering that the reality of Hamas rule in implementing Shari'a law is affecting their lives just as profoundly as the two other issues.
The recent Gaza War only served to underscore that realization. Hama's firing missiles at Israel's civilian population centers, together with its use of Palestinian civilians, schools, ambulances and mosques as shields have deepened these divisions. Constant war and destruction combined with a repressive religious Shari'a system that affects their everyday life is not the desired outcome for most Palestinians. Moreover, on the matter of corruption, there is a significant body of evidence showing that Hamas diverted UN relief aid and food supplies from the general Palestinian population in favor of its supporters in the wake of the Gaza War, so the corruption argument has become a two-edged sword.
Hamas requires Islamic legitimacy, and as such, it is vulnerable to claims from Salafi-jihadist groups in Gaza that it is merely a nationalistic Palestinian organization waving an Islamic flag as opposed to a true global Salafi-jihadist organization seeking to impose an Islamic caliphate. For these reasons, in order to counter the argument that it has betrayed Islam and the "resistance", top Hamas leadership is seeking the blessing of Hezbollah chieftain Hassan Nasrallah to the proposed prisoner swap with Israel, and Egyptian and Israeli intelligence and security services recently foiled Hamas-inspired plans to conduct a wave of Mumbai-type suicide attacks in southern and central Israel in the aftermath of the prisoner exchange.
In effect, while Hamas jealously guards its political power, it is committed to "proving" its Islamic credentials. The Shabak Report suggests that an Islamic mini-state is emerging in Gaza. For reasons of survival (or so it believes), Hamas appears to have made its choice.
Mark Silverberg is a foreign policy analyst for the Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel), a Contributing Editor for Family Security Matters and the New Media Journal and a member of Hadassah's National Academic Advisory Board. His book "The Quartermasters of Terror: Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Jihad" and his articles have been archived under www.marksilverberg.com and www.analyst-network.com
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