Islamic order taking hold as dust settles in Gaza

A week after Hamas’ bloody takeover, the long chaotic Gaza Strip was settling into orderliness Wednesday, June 20.

Militiamen barred people from carrying weapons in public, a group calling itself “Volunteers for God” frantically directed traffic at jammed intersections and gunmen demanded storeowners freeze prices despite a food shortage.

But the new stability did not dispel deep fears among some Gazans that Hamas militants will retaliate against their vanquished enemies in the more secular Fatah movement and impose their severe interpretation of Muslim law, further isolating this poor coastal territory of 1.4 million Palestinians.

“We are leaving a bad situation — but one we knew — and entering an unknown situation, and that makes people nervous. What’s coming?” asked Abu Walid, a 19-year-old shopkeeper in Gaza City.

Some medicine and a few food staples such as flour and sugar already were in short supply because Israel sealed Gaza’s border crossings — including its only cargo terminal — last week, when Hamas routed Fatah fighters loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The United Nations said serious food shortages could strike in two to four weeks if the borders are not opened. On Tuesday, Israel allowed aid groups to bring in 10 trucks of food and two with medicine through a little-used gate on the Egyptian border, and more was expected soon.

Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett said the group sent medicine for the hundreds of people wounded in last week’s fighting and was preparing to ship more.

“Right now, because of the large number of cases, it has put a severe drain on both the medical supplies and on the staff in the hospitals,” he said. “There’s not an acute shortage, but resources are stretched and we are trying to bring in as much as possible.”

In recent days, fighters from the Hamas militia known as the Executive Force have been going into markets and making radio announcements warning shopkeepers not to take advantage of fears of shortages by hiking prices.

“Nobody dares now raise their prices,” said shopkeeper Walid.

Hamas leaders are trying to allay Gazans’ worries, promising that life under their regime will be far better than the chaos that plagued the territory in recent years, when its government involved Fatah officials widely viewed as corrupt.

“We know that our people are concerned about their future, but we want to assure them that the problems that might face us are not going to be worse than what we faced in the past,” said Bassem Naim, a top Hamas official who was a Cabinet minister in the coalition Palestinian government that Abbas dissolved after the Gaza fighting.

Since taking over in Gaza, Hamas has forbidden people to carry weapons in public and has sent its militiamen into the street to enforce the ban. Some 700 volunteers went to schools to maintain order while students took final exams.

About 500 students, wearing green Hamas caps and yellow safety vests, were in the streets directing traffic.

“We don’t want problems. Not between Hamas or Fatah — or in traffic,” Ahmad el-Dadoua, 18, said as he sweated in the hot sun trying vainly to bring sanity to a major intersection in Gaza City.

Many in Gaza welcome Hamas’ law-and-order campaign.

Abu Jamal, 22, a peddler in a busy Gaza market, said he used to be harassed by opponents of Hamas’ brand of Islam because he wore a beard, a sign of Islamic piety. “Now we are safe. Women are safe as well. Men don’t harass them anymore, they wouldn’t dare,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen in the future, but right now I feel safer than I’ve felt before, and you can see that on the streets — people have come out to shop.”

Hamas has not demanded that women dress more modestly or wear headscarves, but some have begun doing so to avoid trouble.

“Maybe they’ll be able to impose this on us, but right now nothing has changed,” said Tahrir Hassan, an 18-year-old college student.

But secular Gazans worry the security campaign will be followed by a push to impose Islamic law.

Nidal Abdi, whose store selling music cassettes was bombed by Islamic militants three months ago, said he had not received threats from Hamas, but expects them soon.

“Everyone is afraid, not just us,” he said, standing next to photos of topless women advertising lingerie. “If they don’t threaten us today, they’ll threaten us tomorrow. We’re waiting for it to happen.”

There have been scattered reports of violence, many of them blamed on Hamas militants taking revenge on Fatah fighters. On Wednesday, Munir Dughmush, a member of Abbas’ presidential guard, was abducted, shot dead and dumped in a square in Gaza City, relatives said.

While dozens of Fatah officials and their families remained stranded at the Erez crossing into Israel trying to escape Gaza, others decided to stay.

A Fatah fighter in southern Gaza, who would only give his name as Yasir, said he was keeping close to home and predicted the current stability will be short-lived.

“Hamas rules now, but watch what happens in the future,” he said. “Everybody with a dead brother is waiting to get their revenge. They will wait years. Everybody knows each other, everybody knows who killed their brother. As soon as Hamas weakens, the guns everybody is hiding will come out.”

In other Gaza news, five Kassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip by gunmen landed Wednesday evening in Sderot, lightly injuring two people and damaging a residential building. A handful of people were treated for shock.

One rocket hit an electric pole, cutting power supplies to a nearby kibbutz. The Islamic Jihad terror group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation to Israel’s military incursions in the Gaza Strip. Also, a Kassam rocket narrowly missed a strategic facility in the southern city of Ashkelon. The Israeli army then began an airstrike against rocket-launch sites in the northern Gaza Strip.

At the same time, Israel allowed in a few sick and wounded Palestinians of the hundreds of people who fled the violence — with many holed up for days at a fetid border passage with Gaza. A teenager with leukemia and four other Palestinians in need of medical care went through the tunnel at the Erez crossing in Israel, the military said. Israeli officials also authorized entry of all foreigners living in Gaza.