In recent months the Hamas-led government in Gaza has seen heavy criticism for imposing practices and policies of "Islamization." Human rights organizations have reported that young men have been forcefully detained and had their heads shaved or their low-rise skinny jeans cut off on the basis of their appearance being too "Western." Other reports abound of men and women being stopped in the streets and asked to present papers documenting that they are in a formal relationship.
According to human rights activist Mustafa Ibrahim, who spoke to Al-Monitor in Gaza, people are currently feeling more watched and limited in their personal freedom. This observation was echoed by Heba Zayyan from UN Women, who said that the main issue was the lack of clarity regarding Hamas' policies.
“It’s very alarming that these things keep happening, but they are not acknowledged by the government. So it is carried out by officials on the ground, but there is no official position on the matter,” she said.
The latest incident to catch the attention of Gaza’s Palestinians, as reported by Al-Monitor on May 10, was the proposal of a new penal code introducing sharia law, including punishing drinking or adultery with whipping, and petty theft with severing the right hand.
Ihab al-Ghussein, head of the media office of the Hamas-led Gaza government, was asked in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor if Hamas is seeking to implement sharia law. The text of the interview follows:
Ghussein: We have been in government for seven years, and if we had behaved like the Western media said, we would look like Afghanistan. But for seven years we have done nothing, and should be analyzed based on that. No, we are not going the direction the Western media says.
I don’t know how [the penal code] went to the media, because it is still being discussed. The Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC] has not yet accepted it and I don’t think it will, because most of the PLC members won’t accept it and won’t let it pass.
Al-Monitor: And from the perspective of the Hamas-led government — are you for or against it?
Ghussein: In the end, it is a matter for the PLC. We are the government, and whatever the PLC agrees on we will implement. But we don’t see it as applicable.
Though these punishments are what sharia and Islam prescribes, the conditions are not right at this moment. And this is not just what I’m saying, but is according to the scholars of sharia.
Al-Monitor: The penal code is not the only issue — what is your stance on the crackdown on so-called "Westernization" trends?
Ghussein: First of all, you are here in Gaza. What do you see? What Western media is always trying to show is that Hamas is just like the Taliban. That has been their strategy for years. I’m telling you it’s not like this. The media talk about Islamizing the Gaza Strip. Yes, our beliefs are Islamic, but we won’t ever force anyone to have Islamic beliefs. Yes, there are some problems with individuals here and there, but these practices are refused by the leaders. It’s not our strategy or our policy.
Al-Monitor: By "individual cases," I assume you're referring to the police officers behind the forced haircuts. How have you responded to this and ensured it won’t happen again?
Ghussein: Leaders of police centers in some areas were behind these cases, which happened over a period of 48 hours. When we heard about it in the government, we stopped it. We believe these habits [of skinny jeans and modern hairstyles] are negative. We don’t like it, and we try to convince people not to do it, but not by force.
The responsibility is on the leaders of the police centers who told the policemen to do it. There were punishments — I don’t know the details — of the main leaders, but we can’t punish the individuals who followed orders.
We have clarified to all police officers and in the media that though we don’t like these negative habits, we will never force people. We try to use all kinds of methods to convince people, but not force them.
Al-Monitor: In addition, there are cases of men and women who were asked to document their relationship. In general, people I have spoken to in Gaza say the main problem is that the policies are unclear.
Ghussein: The media also made this a huge thing. If men and women go out after midnight, the police have checkpoints so they know who is doing what at this late hour, and this is normal.
But our policy is clear; our policy is what the government declares. We don’t hide anything; we believe in a civil country. Our policies comply with the laws of the PLC. We believe that if we want to build a community of good habits, it’s by convincing. This is what we implement.
You should talk to the majority of the people. Our problem is that some people who work in the media are not the majority, but the minority, and they have loud voices. The majority of Gazans knows our policies and don’t have problems with them.
Al-Monitor: People I spoke to were from different parts of society, and they still complained that there were no clear lines. What can you do to make your policies clearer?
Ghussein: Actually, they are clear, but I am sad to say that these people maybe came from a different political thought and that’s why they want to portray us as the devil. If they don’t like you, they don’t want to cooperate and will always talk against you.
Al-Monitor: You criticized Western media, but many of the Al-Monitor journalists reporting on this are from Gaza, and they understand the culture, history and background. Do you mean they have alternative agendas?
Ghussein: I don’t want to go into this. We respect all people. In the end, the majority of Palestinians in Gaza believe we look out for the interest of Palestinians. We came to serve them. We were their choice. Whenever they choose something else, we will go home, unlike our brothers in Fatah.