Fundamentalist 'modesty police' hand out savage beatings
Young Palestinians tortured for tight jeans or unconventional haircuts
It's three weeks since his arrest but Ismail Halou still has streaks of purple bruising on the soles of his feet. The 22 year-old was filling cars at his family's petrol station in Gaza City at 5pm on April 4th when a black jeep pulled into the forecourt, plain-clothed police stepped out and ordered him into the car. He was blindfolded and driven to the nearest police station.
"I could hear the screams of people being beaten in the rooms next to me. Two men held my legs down and tied them together on a wooden board then they beat the soles of my feet with a plastic rod. They beat me for at least five minutes. I was crying and screaming with agony. It was the worst pain I've ever felt," Mr Halou recalls.
It was only after the beating that police officers set to work trying to shave off the one-inch fin of gelled hair that was the cause of his arrest.
"At no point did they tell me why they had arrested me. I found out from neighbours when I got home that it was because of my hair," Mr Halou explains, running a hand over the fuzzy regrowth on his head. He could not walk for three days after his release.
Police in Gaza, a Palestinian coastal enclave run by Islamist faction Hamas, have arrested at least 41 men on charges of immodesty this April.
Most of them were beaten, all of them had their heads forcibly shaven. Some were shaven because their haircuts that were deemed culturally inappropriate, others because their trousers were either too low-slung or too fitted. In at least two cases, police also cut-up jeans deemed too tight.
Rajou Hayek, 33, was arrested while pushing his wheelchair-bound father to a health clinic in Gaza City, he claims for no reason other than intimidation.
"When I arrived at the police station, the first thing I saw was a mountain of hair, it looked like it had been shaved from 300 heads," Mr Hayek says.
He sustained a savage beating before also having his head shaved.
"It was humiliating, I was crying throughout. This policy is nothing to do with jeans or hairstyles. Hamas is just trying to make Gaza afraid of them."
During their six years running Gaza, Hamas security forces have used thuggish tactics against political opponents.
But a violently enforced public modesty campaign is new. This latest trend of punitive head shaving has shocked a conflict and poverty hardened community. Gaza is gripped with a palpable fear that Hamas is driving the population towards unapologetic, militant, Islamic fundamentalism.
Ihab Al Ghusain, director of the Hamas media centre in Gaza and former spokesperson for the interior ministry, is critical of the police force's violent methods but defends their message.
"Young people should be concerned with their education and what Israel is doing to us rather than concentrating on the outside world and pop stars with those sorts of haircuts," he told The Telegraph.
The 'haircut campaign', as it has been dubbed, follows a surge in extremist directives from Gaza's Hamas leadership. In March, the United Nations issued a statement cancelling their annual Gaza marathon because Hamas had forbidden women, both local and foreign, from running alongside men – a practice it had allowed for the previous five years.
Osama Mazini, Hamas' minister for education, announced on April 1st a new law forbidding girls and boys over the age of nine from being educated alongside, or taught by anyone, of the opposite sex. In practice, almost all schools in Gaza are already gender segregated but this new legislation served a political rather than a practical purpose.
"There is no question that Gaza is more 'Islamicised' now that it has been at any point since Hamas took power and it is only getting worse," warns Samar Zakout, deputy director of Al Mezan human rights organisation.
"To the international community, the Hamas leadership say they are politically open, that they respect human rights. But at home they are struggling to convince their members they are protectors of traditional values."
Following their landslide victory over rival, secular faction Fatah in Gaza's 2007 elections, Israel promptly sealed its borders with the hostile new neighbour that denied its existence and is yet to lift a blockade of the territory that has caused a profound economic crisis.
Hamas worked steadily to shape the character of Gaza in its image. An early attempt to introduce Sharia law into the penal code failed but fundamentalist Islamic codes have been enforced on the community through fear and suggestion.
Hamas warned against women smoking nargilla water pipes in public, raided weddings where women and men were reported to be dancing together and waged a PR campaign in girls' schools to encourage students to cover themselves entirely, pitting school heads against liberal parents.
Fear and self-censorship have transformed Gaza. In Gaza's cafés, heady clouds of orange blossom and apple vapour billow from nargilla pipes smoked exclusively by men. There are now few bare heads among the streams of young women and girls pouring out of Gaza's schools and universities. Female figures seldom walk alone through Gaza City's streets and markets, and those who do usually move briskly and are shrouded.
And yet, over the past year, Hamas has sustained attacks from its own party faithful and rival jihadist groups angered by the moderate policies of its leadership.
On April 6th, a group of 30 Salafi mothers aligned protested in Rafah, in Gaza's conservative South, demanding the release of their sons arrested by Hamas for firing rockets into Israel. Three days earlier, a supermarket in Jabalia refugee camp was the target of a Salafist bomb attack protesting Western influence on Palestinian society.
This spark in violent Salafi protests and the introduction of the Hamas police force's head-shaving campaign coincide neatly with the re-election of Khaled Meshaal as leader of the Hamas politburo on April 2nd in Cairo.
Mr Meshaal, who has lived in exile for decades and first visited Gaza in December last year, has enraged Hamas hardliners with his concessions to Fatah and Israel. In February 2012, he signed the Dohar Agreement agreeing to Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority president, heading a reconciled Palestinian government.
Mr Meshaal has not recognised the state of Israel, as Yasser Arafat did in 1988, but has agreed to a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. He was also instrumental in brokering a deal to end last November's conflict with Israel. To Gaza's extremist elements, Mr Meshaal is not a moderate he is an Israeli collaborator.
Mkhaimer Abusaid, a political scientist at Gaza's Azhar University, links the recent increase in Hamas' Islamist policies to a rift within the Hamas membership between those who oppose reconciliation with Fatah and those who support Mr Meshaal.
"Much of this recent chaos in Gaza is attention grabbing by radical elements beaten by Meshaal in the Cairo elections who are trying to prove that they are still in control of Gaza," explains Mkhaimer Abusadi, a political scientist at Gaza's Azhar University.
He points in particular to Mousa Abu Marzouk, Mr Meshaal's former deputy, and Fadi Hamad, Gaza's hard-line minister of interior. Both lost their positions in Hamas' central command but remain powerful figures in Gaza.
Until Mr Meshaal makes significant headway in his reconciliation efforts, is rivals in charge on the ground in Gaza will continue undermine his efforts towards moderacy on the world stage by embracing fundamentalism at home. A population already battered by devastating bouts of conflict with Israel and a six-year blockade will be squeezed even further.
For Ismail Halou's, whose father was killed in an Israeli air strike shortly after Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2010 as he walked between his mosque and his car, enough is enough. If he could leave Gaza he would, but he can't.
"Hamas is getting stricter and stricter," he says. "We are already under so much pressure, there are troubles with Israel, troubles with factions, troubles with the economy, and now it's our jeans and our hairstyles? For me, for anyone, this is too much."
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