Nearly a decade ago, former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was so upset with Hamas that he ordered his security forces to arrest leaders of the Islamist movement and shave their beards. The move was intended to humiliate the Hamas leaders, who were embarrassed to appear in public beardless after they were freed. Many Hamas members then shaved their beards voluntarily to avoid being arrested by the PA security forces. Now Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces are working hard to thwart any attempt by Hamas to seize the West Bank, has renewed the policy of shaving the beards of Hamas figures. A senior Hamas figure from the village of Skaka near Nablus is the latest victim of the beard-shaving policy. Sheikh Husam Harb, 48, who has been wearing a beard ever since he was a teenager, was arrested by Abbas's security forces in mid-October on charges of membership in Hamas. Last week villagers who went to congratulate him upon his release from prison were shocked to see him sitting at home without a beard. The sheikh said the Palestinian security forces shaved his beard shortly before releasing him. "The security agents came to my cell in the evening and informed me of the decision to shave my beard, which I've had for 25 years," he recounted. "The whole act lasted only a few minutes. I was so shocked that I couldn't sleep all night." Egypt's notorious and much-feared secret services were among the first in the Arab world to use beard-shaving as a means of humiliation against members of the Muslim Brotherhood organization. The new-old measure, PA officials in Ramallah explained, is in the context of the continued clampdown on Hamas members and institutions in the West Bank. "This is an effective method in the war against Hamas," said one official. "Shaving their beards really embarrasses the Hamas men. We've tried it before and it works." The official noted that Palestinian security agents had shaved the beard of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar back in the mid-1990s while he was in detention in Gaza City. He added that the decision was taken by senior officials in Arafat's inner circle. Many Muslims believe that, according to Islamic teachings, it is mandatory to grow a beard. Some even go as far as arguing that growing a beard is one of the sunnahs [trodden path] of the Prophet Muhammad. In Islam, the sunnah is the secondary source of Islamic law after the Quran. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have made a number of references regarding the significance of beards in Islam. His followers quoted him as saying, "Be distinguished from disbelievers, grow your beards, and shave your mustaches." He was also quoted as saying, "Trim the moustache and save the beard." According to prominent Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf al- Qardawi, the Prophet related the reason for growing a beard to the necessity of distinguishing Muslims from non-Muslims. The non-Muslims referred to are the Persians who used to shave their beards. The Prophet wanted to teach Muslims how to be distinguished in their appearance and their behavior. Besides, explains al-Qardawi, "Shaving a beard is an act of revolting against the nature of man, and imitating women. Thus, the beard is a sign of maturity and manhood and many Muslim scholars have made it haram [prohibited] to shave a beard." Hamas activists claimed over the weekend that the case of Sheikh Harb was not an isolated incident. They told The Jerusalem Post that at least 20 other Hamas members have had their beards shaven while they were being held in detention by PA security forces in the West Bank. According to the activists, the forced shaving of beards had been a common practice in the Gaza Strip before Hamas took full control over the area last June. They pointed out that some young men who were not affiliated with Hamas were beaten or killed by PA security agents and officers simply because they were wearing beards. Anas al-Haj, a 20 year-old bearded man from the Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, said he was kidnapped by PA policemen who stopped a taxi he was riding "because I was the only one with a beard." He said the policemen took him to a security installation, where they beat him severely and extinguished cigarettes on his beard and other parts of the body. Haj said that while in detention he met another young man, Husam Abu Qainas, who was also wearing a beard. He said the PA policemen took them to a tower in Gaza City, where they pushed Abu Qainas to his death from the 14th floor. "Abu Qainas was actually a member of the Palestinian security forces," he added. "On the way to the tower, he kept pleading with the policemen to let him go because he was not a member of Hamas. But they didn't believe him. They asked him, 'If you are really not from Hamas, how come you have a beard?' He replied that he was too poor to buy razors and that's why he hadn't shaved his face. But they did not believe him and pushed him to his death." Haj said he was then taken to a security compound, where he was shot 12 times in the legs. "I tried to explain to them that I'm not from Hamas, but they didn't want to listen," he said. "My only crime, like that of Husam Abu Qainas, was that I had a beard. For them this was enough to shoot me and kill him."