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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Beach patrols break up groups of singles, and tell men to put on shirts. Women are ordered to wear hijabs, veils and long black robes when strolling along the waterfront. Couples caught holding hands in public are detained and asked to present their marriage papers. One couple was caught kissing in a car. The woman was sent home and the man severely beaten.
This is the new Gaza Strip. Here, two years after violently seizing control from the Palestinian Authority, and seven months after Operation Cast Lead, Hamas is for the first time imposing Islamic law on an already strained Palestinian public.
The campaign even has a slogan - "Yes to virtuous deeds; no to abominations" - which can be seen on signs along some of the main thoroughfares. Hamas insists that its "virtue campaign" is merely a response to the Gazan preference for conservative ways, and that compliance on the part of the public is still voluntary. The Israeli defense establishment, however, believes it to be yet another indication of radicalization in the Strip. As a result, it is carefully watching the trend.
Indeed, the increasing Islamization of Gaza is manifested in a number of ways. Firstly, Hamas has decided the government will be run according to Sharia law. One example is the establishment of a new banking system. Until recently, Hamas used Palestinian Authority banks in the Strip. On April 21, it opened the first "Islamic National Bank," which functions in accordance with Sharia - for example, forbidding interest on loans.
Hamas also established an insurance company that operates according to Sharia.
Last month, Gaza Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdel Raouf Halabi ordered female lawyers to wear head scarves and dark robes, or be barred from courtrooms when they return to work in September. "We will not allow people to ruin morals," he explained.
In government-run schools, head scarves for female students are supposed to be optional. But one high school has made robes and head scarves a condition for enrollment. Teachers are now being asked to pressure the girls to put them on, said Education Ministry spokesman Khaled Radi.
Hamas also recently established new television and radio stations. Press credentials are issued by Hamas, and it demands to see the material before it is broadcast or published. In jails, Hamas has set up programs for memorizing the Koran, and offers shortened sentences to inmates who succeed at doing so.
On Friday, Hamas operatives enter the main markets in Khan Yunis and the Shati refugee camp, and order the men to go to nearby mosques for prayer services. And, while on the topic of mosques in Gaza, there are close to 1,000. Prior to the Hamas takeover in the summer of 2007, there were only 774.
"THIS IS all part of Hamas's ultimate plan, which is to establish an Islamic state in Gaza and throughout Israel," explained an IDF intelligence officer in the office of the coordinator of government activities, who is responsible for following trends in the Palestinian territories.
Though the Islamization appears to be of a religious nature, it is also part of Hamas's effort to solidify control and neutralize potential pockets of resistance, such as members of Fatah who were not allowed to leave Gaza this week to attend the movement's conference in Bethlehem.
While Hamas is cracking down on its own civilians, it has lowered its terrorist profile since the end of Cast Lead in mid-January. During the three-week operation, more than 800 Kassams and mortars were fired at Israel. Since the war's end, only 170 have been launched.
There are a number of reasons for the lull. Firstly, Hamas is still rehabilitating its damaged military infrastructure, and needs time to rearm and rebuild bombed-out tunnels and command centers. Secondly, it is in the midst of Egyptian-mediated talks with Fatah regarding a potential reconciliation which could lead to the terror group's rejoining the PA government.
In addition, it is also gearing up for elections that may be held in January. Another war with Israel would cause more damage to Gaza, and possibly impact negatively on public opinion.
THIS DOESN'T mean that Gaza is terror-free, however. Rather, Hamas is allowing smaller groups to do the dirty work. On July 29, an explosion rocked a Hamas military training camp in Khan Yunis, likely caused by a "work accident."
A day later, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine held a military march in Rafah, where its operatives displayed their uniforms and weaponry.
Israel is increasingly concerned with the possibility that elections will be held in the PA, and fears a Fatah defeat. Though recent polls show Fatah leading by 10 percent, this was the same assessment ahead of the 2006 elections which brought Hamas to power.
Israeli officials have conveyed this concern to PA President Mahmoud Abbas - who publicly declares his support for the elections - and to European and American leaders. "It is in our interest to oppose the elections," a senior Defense Ministry official said.
Indeed, the current situation is optimal for the IDF. The Palestinians are not united, and Hamas is not involved in the political process. Fatah officials openly admit that they do not talk directly with Hamas, but use mediators in Syria, Egypt and Jordan.
Israel is comfortable with its current partners, Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. An unprecedented number of businesses have opened in the PA this year; hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints have been removed; and the International Monetary Fund predicts that the West Bank economy will grow by 7 percent.
For this reason, Israel is concerned that the Fatah conference in Bethlehem will end with decisions that could undermine Fayad's authority. The conference, the sixth of its kind, opened on Tuesday, and was attended by more than 2,000 delegates from across the Arab world. On the agenda was choosing a new leadership and platform for the movement.
Israel's worry is that the new leadership will not only be more radical, but would want to see one of its own - a member of Fatah - as PA prime minister, instead of Fayad. If this happens, the positive developments in the West Bank could end.
AP contributed to this report.