Most people involved or interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are currently focused –” and rightly so – on newly started up direct talks between the two parties. However, as appealing as these negotiations may seem to be and regardless of whether they fail or succeed in the end, there are other just as important issues pressing on the Palestinians right here at home. If these "pressing issues" are not solved internally, not even a peace settlement will calm the fires of dissent slowly burning within.
The word "burning" is not coincidental, by the way. On September 19, unknown assailants tied up the guards of Gaza’s Crazy Water Park –” one of the few recreational venues left in the beleaguered Strip, poured gasoline over the water slides and outdoor cafes and set it ablaze. While the group responsible for sending over 20 masked men into the park at three in the morning has yet to claim responsibility, this disturbing incident is not isolated and has unfortunately taken place on the heels of several other acts of arson and vandalism in the Gaza Strip. In May and June of this year, two UNRWA-run summer camps were attacked by another group of assailants, ostensibly because the mingling of girls and boys is prohibited under this group’s strict interpretation of Islam. Other Islamic splinter groups have also torched internet cafes and restaurants in Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007 for the same reason.
However, we cannot only blame the crazy fanatics with previously unknown names for the trend we see in Gaza. The Hamas de facto government, which does not outwardly condone these acts of vandalism, is often a complicit partner. For example, the Crazy Water Park was duly closed down by Hamas’ attorney general on September 5 for a 21 day period. While the initial reason given for the park’s closure was the digging of an artisanal well without government approval, the owner of the park was later made to sign an oath that he would not sell water pipes to women (based on an earlier Hamas government ban) and to abide by the so-called "non-mixture" of men and women.
Whether Hamas has had a direct hand in these despicable acts or not is not the only issue. Given that they happen so often is just as important, as it indicates that the Islamic authority there –” already moving more and more towards strict conservatism –” is, if nothing else, turning a blind eye to the groups who actually do strike the match. The fact that Hamas is starting more and more to crack down on women in the Strip –” first it was the ban on male hairdressers cutting women’s hair and then it was the ban on women smoking a water pipe –” can only encourage those who lean more towards conservatism and the oppression of secularism.
At Al Azhar University in Gaza, women are no longer allowed to graduate if they are not wearing the hijab (Islamic headdress). The university says it will not print their picture on the certificate if they are not in Islamic garb. In schools across the Strip, girls are either forced or coerced into wearing the scarf even if their families do not require this of their daughters at home.
The slow but steady push towards more conservative Islam in Gaza and the violent rejection of anything less than the so-called accepted norm is disconcerting to say the least. Unfortunately, this uncompromising rejection spills over into political circles as well, both among Hamas in Gaza and the PA government in Ramallah. Horror stories of Fateh activists being arrested and harassed in Hamas-run jails have often made their way to the media, many times in the form of harsh accusations by the West Bank government of Hamas’ crackdown on its operatives. In the West Bank, the opposite holds true. The PA security forces oftentimes round up Hamas activists or supporters whenever there is a military operation against Israelis or Hamas expresses particular opposition to the PA’s course of action.
This tit-for-tat between the two along with Hamas’ preoccupation with Islamic propriety has led us to a very dangerous precipice; one that has put us at risk of either forgetting that the major obstacle to our independence is Israel’s occupation or of allowing ourselves to fall into such social and political decay we would not be prepared internally even if we were to win the negotiating battle.
There is nothing that weakens a should-be unified stance more than a divided house. Israel knows this well. Our opponents are never happier than when they see us bickering among each other or undermining our own little showings of prosperity and comfort. The Palestinians, unfortunately, have not come to this realization yet. Hamas has remained adamant that they are the legitimate leaders of Gaza while turning this leadership more and more into an oppressive regime as each day goes by. In the West Bank, the Palestinian leadership has jumped head first into negotiations with Israel without representation from an entire sect of Palestinian society.
With negotiations faulty to begin with, the Palestinians owe it to themselves to at least make their internal situation as faultless as possible. For the Hamas leadership in Gaza, this entails both political conciliation with Fateh and an easing of the oppressive policies they have come to embrace. For the leadership in the West Bank, which is at the helm of the negotiating process, this also means reconciliation, especially if they are looking towards creating a secular Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip is an integral part of the homeland and Hamas, whether we agree with it or not, must be addressed. If not, no solution will ever be lasting and no real internal peace will ever prevail.