Gaza: clampdown on women's freedom as Hamas tightens grip

Submitted by cathy n on 26 October, 2009 - 3:47 Author: Dan Katz

On 24 October Fatah’s Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas set the date of Palestinian elections for 24 January 2010. The announcement took place without the agreement of the Islamist party, Hamas, which rules on the Gaza Strip. Hamas denounced the announcement.

In aftermath of the Gaza war, an opinion poll of Palestinians showed that Hamas (at 33% support) had made gains, and backing for Fatah had dropped (to 40%). The poll was taken in early March 2009 by Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

A similar PSR poll, taken in mid-August 2009, shows Fatah increasing their lead over Hamas. If a vote had been taken in August the poll suggests Mahmoud Abbas would have polled 52% against 38% for Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, with only 60% saying they would bother to vote.

Interestingly, the poll shows that if Fatah’s candidate was Marwan Barghouti, the radical Fatah leader currently jailed in Israel, he would poll 62%, against 31% for Hamas on an increased 71% turn-out.

Fatah support has probably fallen since August following Abbas’ dithering over backing the Goldstone Report at the UN’s Human Rights Council on 1 October.

The Hamas Takeover

Hamas beat Fatah in the Palestinian elections of 2006 and took state power in Gaza after a short civil war with Fatah in June 2007.

Hamas has decapitated Fatah’s organisation in Gaza. Many branches of the state apparatus have been purged, or, like the security forces, rebuilt from scratch with Hamas supporters in charge. Some Fatah members have fled, and others have been detained as Fatah-run political and social organisations have been raided and closed down. Fatah-led trade unions have also been attacked. Hamas has been in dispute with teachers, health workers and journalists. Most recently, in September, 200 volunteer teachers, dismissed from their jobs earlier in the year and deemed politically suspect by Hamas, have been banned from working in schools in a move denounced by the teachers’ union.

According to an investigation by The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in May 87 women activists were prevented by Hamas’ Internal Security Service from leaving Gaza to attend the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) conference being convened in Ramallah on the West Bank.

Hamas used the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 to further weaken their internal political rivals. Human Rights Watch notes that, “During Israel’s attack on Gaza, Hamas moved violently against its political opponents and those deemed collaborators with Israeli forces. The unlawful arrests, torture, and killings in detention continued even after the fighting stopped, mocking Hamas’s claims to uphold the law.”

According to the Jerusalem Post Hamas used the Israeli war to renew thousands of “house arrest orders” against Fatah officials and activists.

And the Independent Commission for Human Rights, an organisation sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, claimed masked [Hamas] gunmen shot at least 49 people in the legs in punishment shootings between 28 December and 31 January 2009.
In the Fatah-run West Bank Hamas supporters have also been rounded up. Some have been tortured. Human Rights Watch have also recorded deaths in custody, and the arrest of journalists considered pro-Hamas.

In July 2009, Hamas officials initiated what they called a "virtue" campaign, saying they were concerned about increasing "immoral" behaviour in Gaza. The main victims have been women.

In July a judge ordered that female lawyers had to wear the jilbab (a full-length robe) and the hijab (headscarves) in court. Nearly all the 150 women lawyers in Gaza wear the headscarf already, but they challenged the ruling as illegal and won. One, Dina Abu Dagga, said, “It was not the Chief Justice’s right to change the dress code. It was absolutely illegal… We are not against the hijab. I wear it myself. We are against imposing it… Today you impose the hijab, but tomorrow it will be something else.”

As the new school year began, in late August, pressure was placed on parents to dress their daughters more conservatively. Some female students have been refused entry to schools. Girls are being told they must wear a jilbab and a headscarf. Previously, the uniform typically required for female public school students was a long denim skirt and shirt.

Zeinab Ghonaimy of the Center for Women’s Legal Research and Consulting in Gaza reports that a school administrator slapped one female student in front of her schoolmates for not wearing the jilbab: "Physically assaulting students and humiliating them in front of their peers is simply unacceptable, whatever the reason, and especially to force them to wear certain religious clothing in violation of their religious freedom."

In mid-October the police began enforcing a new law which prevents women riding motorcyles. The ban, which was posted on a Hamas website claims they seek to “preserve citizen safety and the stability of Palestinian society’s customs and traditions.”

Hamas have banned mannequins and the display of women’s underwear in shop windows.

Hamas police patrols now demand women dress ‘modestly’ on the beach and that women are accompanied by fathers or brothers. Some of those that have broken these rules have been beaten-up by the police. One resident told Human Rights Watch that, on the night of 9 July, Hamas police beat up three young men for swimming without shirts.

It is increasingly rare to see women in the street who are not wearing headscarves – something now “mainly confined to the wealthier areas of Gaza City” (Guardian, 19 October). Those that do venture out without covering their hair can expect to be taunted.

In mid-October the Independent Commission for Citizens Rights’ office in Gaza City was raised by Hamas police and forced to close. Local human rights activists claim Hamas want to stop independent reporting of the current wave of repression.

Gaza continues to be gripped by a humanitarian crisis with 80% of families relying on humanitarian aid, 95% of Gaza’s industrial operations suspended, and unemployment at more than 50%.