A Hamas-controlled magistrate's court on Sunday decided to ban the distribution of the daily Al-Ayyam in the Gaza Strip after accusing it of publishing "libelous and slanderous" material against Hamas figures. The decision followed a complaint filed by Hamas legislators against the Palestinian Authority-funded paper for publishing a cartoon that ridiculed them and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The cartoon, which was published last November, shows Haniyeh addressing a meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council, where all legislators look like him and carry photos of him. The caption accompanying the cartoon reads, "The Illegitimate." The court also sentenced in absentia the paper's editor, Akram Haniyeh, and cartoonist Baha al-Bukhari to six months in prison after finding them guilty of libel and slander. The court also ordered the editor to pay a fine of 1,000 Jordanian dinars (approximately NIS 6,000), while the cartoonist was fined only NIS 1,000. Al-Ayyam is a relatively small newspaper published in Ramallah. According to some of the journalists working there, the paper used to sell fewer than 3,000 copies in the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, Al-Ayyam sells only a few thousand copies each day. In the past few weeks, none of the three major Palestinian newspapers have been distributed in the Gaza Strip due to the continued closure of the Erez border crossing. The other two newspapers are the semi-official Al-Quds, which is published in Jerusalem, and the Ramallah-based, PA-funded Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda. The decision to ban Al-Ayyam was the latest in a series of measures by Hamas directed against rival newspapers and journalists. Two journalists working for Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda - columnist Omar al-Ghul and Munir Abu Rizek, the paper's bureau chief in the Gaza Strip - were released last week from a Hamas prison after being held for more than 40 days. Several other journalists working for Fatah-controlled media outlets have also been targeted by Hamas over the past few months. One of the editors at Al-Ayyam told The Jerusalem Post that the decision to ban his newspaper in the Gaza Strip did not come as a surprise to him. "Hamas has long been terrorizing journalists who don't toe the line," he said. "The court that issued the decision is an illegal court working for an illegal government." Hassan Abu Hashish, a senior official with the Hamas-run Ministry of Information in the Gaza Strip, denied that the court decision had been politically motivated. He said the case against Al-Ayyam had been filed on the basis of the PA's penal law. He expressed hope that the editors of the paper would seek his ministry's help in solving the problem. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Journalists Syndicate in the West Bank strongly condemned the court order and called on Hamas to lift the ban. The syndicate described the decision as a "flagrant violation of the freedom of the media in Palestine."