Gaza at Ramadan: blockade, dress code fray tempers

GAZA, Aug 27 (Reuters) - On top of their long weariness with rations and bare shelves, the Palestinians of Gaza face new pressure to conform with religious dress codes, and a sense of irritation with the enclave's Hamas leaders is growing.



This is their third Ramadan under the rule of the Islamist group Hamas and the tightened Israeli blockade that followed the its seizure of power in 2007.

The World Bank says the Mediterranean coastal enclave faces "extreme closure" in the form of a tight Israeli blockade. In the words of one trader, business is the worst in 50 years.

Residents vouch for an improved state of security in their streets, with Hamas police fighting domestic crime. But the recent sight of young men 'encouraging' a Muslim dress code is less welcome. Ramadan is a month when Muslims give a greater place to religion in their daily lives but also treat themselves and their families to feasts amid the fasting.

This week, as the start of a new academic year coincided with the start of Ramadan, girls going to school complained of confusion and unwanted interference in how they dress.

There were mixed signals, they said, over whether it was now mandatory to wear a full-length dress and headscarf.

"They made us wear it against our will. It is not acceptable," 16-year-old Safa al-Qidwa said as she stood by the gate of Bashir al-Rayes high school in the city of Gaza.

While traditional Muslim dress and headgear were worn by girls in much of the enclave long before Hamas, it was common at schools in richer, more secular areas to go bareheaded and wear long denim skirts and blouses rather than robes and scarves.

A few days into term and in schoolyards where looser rules applied before, the dark blue, ankle-length gown known as the jilbab and an enveloping white headscarf have become uniform dress, though some girls are still holding out.

Hamas's Education Minister Mohammed Asqoul denies any central push for more traditional dress and calls it a "personal initiative" by some school principals. said he had told the schools and "things have returned to normal".

Some other teachers, speaking privately, said there had been instructions from officials to change the dress code -- which were later countermanded.

HEADSCARVES

"We came in on Sunday wearing the old uniform and there was an order (to change)," said Carmel Zaqout, 15, who was wearing the denim skirt and blouse used previously in the school.

"But later they left us alone to wear what we want," added Zaqout, whose hair was left uncovered.

Some, like Asmaa Abu Aita, like the change, however. It would "protect women" she said.

Several parents of schoolgirls said their children had been sent home from classes in Gaza over violations of the new dress code, and shopkeepers said they were stocking mainly the jilbab now and no longer selling the denim skirts for school.

The uncertainty over the school dress code is not untypical of Gaza's trend toward greater conformity to Muslim tradition.

Long a bastion of religious values among the Palestinians, the enclave under Hamas has seen a sprouting of beards for men, a drying up of alcohol and more observance of the Ramadan fast.

Yet Hamas, already shunned by the West for its refusal to renounce violence against Israel, seems wary of letting itself be portrayed as a movement of Taliban-style fundamentalism. It has not forcefully imposed its own internal codes on all Gazans.

This month, it sent in its security force to crush a small splinter group that had espoused al Qaeda's values and which had criticised Hamas for failing to install an Islamic regime. Some two dozen people were killed in that violence.

BLOCKADE

While controversy over the school dress code is the talk of middle-class dinner tables at the sunset feasts which greet the end of each day's Ramadan fast, the other hot topic in the territory of 1.5 million is finding traditional Ramadan treats.

Food aid arrives regularly and, for the better off, there is a supply of non-essentials via smuggling tunnels on the border with Egypt. But there is a grinding weariness among people, some of whom hold Hamas responsible for the blockade and for Israel's offensive in January that wrecked homes and killed hundreds.

"In 50 years in business, I've never seen a worse economic situation," said clothing merchant Abu Kamel al-Shurafa.

"We need the crossings opened and we want to go back to importing our goods from China and Turkey," he added, saying Hamas and its secular rivals in the West Bank should end their schism in order to negotiate an end to Israel's Gaza blockade.

"This economic situation is the worst," said Hassan Issa, who sells schoolbags at Gaza's main market. Customers simply did not have the cash to pay for higher-priced goods, he added.

Among some traders, there is resentment that Hamas may be benefitting from some of their problems -- notably by virtue of controlling trade through the smuggling tunnels. Though people in Gaza hesitate to speak out publicly against Hamas, some business people do complain privately about the Islamists.

While the tunnels mitigated the impact of the embargo on above-ground trade, sparing Hamas from greater popular anger, some traders said Hamas was profiting from the tunnels -- both through a form of taxation of goods coming in and through direct ownership stakes in tunnels, held by Hamas officials.

"We cannot prove it," one Gaza businessman said. "But there is nothing in Gaza that can be done without Hamas consent."

Hamas had denied any of its officials got personal connections to tunnel business.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

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