Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- It never occurred to him when he woke up startled that the ferocious explosion that shook the area was the after-effects of a bomb that targeted his Internet café in the Ramla neighborhood in downtown Gaza. He was perplexed when the owners of neighboring shops phoned to tell him that his shop had been targeted. The 30-year-old shop owner arrived to find his café reduced to rubble after the explosion of a bomb that had been planted by the main door and detonated from a distance.
Although months have passed since the incident happened, the owner remains terror-stricken and refuses to reveal his name fearing for his life. Even after reassurances that his name would not be mentioned he was still cautious to not elaborate on what happened to him.
Yet Gaza has witnessed a number of similar incidents lately all executed by obscure groups that claim responsibility for targeting Internet cafes, mobile phone shops, women’s cosmetics shops and female hairdressing salons, in addition to a number of cafes and restaurants on the beach. Those whose shops have been targeted confirm that there is no justification for the bombing of their shops.
The owner of the aforementioned Internet café who has requested anonymity said that it was possible that some of the customers accessed pornographic websites in his café but stressed that it rarely would have happened since he imposes strict censorship on them. He pointed out that the vast majority of people who used to come into his café were students who were doing research or families who would use chat-rooms to get in touch with family members who live abroad, moreover affirming that his café was gender segregated.
But the little-known parties who claim responsibility for these incidents stress that they are doing this to stop the spread of adultery and debauchery, which they claim these shops are encouraging. Palestinian security sources recently estimated the number of bombs to target such shops to be approximately 30 thus far. The parties responsible for them send warnings to the shops in question which they deem to be morally corrupt before attacking them. Most of the blasts that took place in central Gaza have received warnings bearing the name of these obscure groups.
One of the groups to partake in these operations goes by the name “the Islamic Swords of Truth”. In one of its statements, the group says that it acts to implement God’s law [Shariaa] in the land and has taken it upon itself to, “end corruption in all its forms in the Islamic nation by using the means it deems necessary, which are in accordance with Islamic Shariah and in the harsh manner that has now become inevitable to confront those who have chosen to follow the devil and are responsible for spreading doom amongst the Muslim youth and families,” said one statement.
In another statement the group said that, “it was implementing God’s law after consulting religious references and prominent leaders with the aim of punishing those deserving of it and that it will not relent in reprimanding any violations and will enforce the law to serve justice and execute those it considers to be symbols of corruption and debauchery.” The group has demanded that the owners of internet cafes close after 10pm, stressing that “it will not allow brothels, and that reactions to violators will be fierce.”
The self-appointed vice squad calls upon families to supervise their children adding, “we should not limit our knowledge to the fact that they are in schools and universities; it is their guardians’ duty to follow them even in their schools and universities. Bad company is the source of evil that leads girls on to the path of the devil to degradation and sin and we thank God that we have a list with all the names of the fallen and corrupt women who are actively transforming schools and universities into dens of sin. We also have names and details about a group of human predators who drive cabs in search of easy prey from the streets of our nation. We see them and they are stray dogs dispersed in the streets, greedy in search of carrion to prey upon. With God’s will we shall carry out their punishment very soon so that they and others like them who have fallen can be an example for those who listen.” Furthermore, in its statement the group warned, “all dealers, pushers and those who abuse drugs: silence has come to an end and your time for retribution has come. Nothing can save you from our swords except your return to God Almighty. We strike down with an iron fist on any person implicated in undermining the confidence, security and stability of this good land.”
But the question that poses itself is: Who exactly are the groups responsible for these operations, and do they all belong to one organizational fabric? There is no dispute among observers in Gaza that this phenomenon does not indicate the existence of an ideological framework or an ideological belief that supports it – else those involved in such operations would have been associated with organized groups to some degree. Nehad al Sheikh Khalil, a researcher in Islamic movement affairs spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat and said, “This phenomenon does not indicate that there is a clear ideological vision behind it. All it signifies is a group of teenagers who have taken advantage of the chaos and slip in security to undertake such practices.”
Al Sheikh Khalil rejects the notion and term the ‘Talibanization’ of the Gaza strip pointing out that experience has shown that phenomena such as these surface whenever chaos prevails and in the absence of security and law. He makes a direct link between the activities of these groups and the absence of a national agenda capable of consolidating Palestinian resources and channeling it into unity. He added, “When communities address significant issues and the leadership succeeds in realizing a national agenda that is both clear and convincing then the public becomes concerned and attentive to these issues. But when the public senses the lack of an important cause to unite it, it usually gets distracted with marginal issues that are of no real significance, which also lends room for suchlike negative phenomenon to manifest.”
Al Sheikh Khalil is firm in directing accusations at the Palestinian security apparatus, which he maintains has not shown any seriousness in addressing the security issues. He explains that when a leader from the security apparatus talks about the implementation of the security plan presented by the new Palestinian interior minister while discussing the ongoing efforts to reach a political accord among the conflicting Palestinian parties, this is proof that there is no real intention to remedy the deteriorated security situation and its repercussions. This recent phenomenon of bombing shops is among such consequences.
For his part Wissam Afifa, a senior journalist in Gaza’s weekly newspaper ‘al Risala’, agrees with al Sheikh Khalil’s statements. The newspaper has provided extensive coverage and has published numerous investigations pertaining to this phenomenon. Afifa believes that these events do not reflect the birth of an intellectual or ideological entity but rather a phenomenon that has come about as a result of the slip in security. But in his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Afifa revealed that the youth responsible for the attacks on these shops are most likely among the marginal cadres on the peripheries of Palestinian organizations and as such, use weapons owned by these organizations to execute their operations. However, he points out that there is no coordination between leaderships – in fact, these groups go against these organizations’ orientations.
Afifa added that these youth use various types of explosives including time-controlled bombs and mortar fire. He elaborated that their operations depend on monitoring and the collection of accurate data on which they build the basis of all their operations to target shops. He pointed out that some of the members of these groups are not affiliated to purely Islamic organizations but rather ones that combine Islamic and nationalist inclinations so that they are united under the banner of fighting moral corruption. They perceive that such conduct goes against the religious teachings and is additionally one of the biggest obstacles that hinders the liberation of Palestine.
However Afifa says it is necessary to point out that such practices are not new and that the truth is Gaza has witnessed numerous similar phenomena that were likewise without ideological or organizational roots. In the eighties there were various attacks on what were deemed centers of moral decadence in Gaza. During this era, the Gaza Strip saw a chain of attacks on cafes led by a group of religious youth who were not affiliated to any organizations. Moreover, shops that were alleged to be selling alcohol were targeted, as were individuals seen eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan.
And yet dealing with what is considered to be ‘immoral practices’ is not really linked with the ideological nature that constitutes Palestinian organizations. With the outbreak of the first Intifada at the end of 1987, the leftist and secular groups played no lesser role than the Islamic organizations did in confronting the propagators of drugs and alcohol and those who were implicated in any immoral activities. Activists from the various Palestinian organizations used to kidnap drug dealers and anyone they suspected to have been involved in prostitution, and those who harass women on the streets were subject to interrogation. If proven guilty these parties or individuals were often punished – frequently before an audience of people.
There is prevalent belief among many in Gaza that the security problems in the Palestinian territories – and particularly in Gaza – are a result of some taking advantage of the situation to further personal interests by using bogus names for groups that do not exist simply to fulfill their interests or to seek revenge. Incidents that confirm this belief include the burning down of a children’s clothing shop under the claim that it was implicated in unethical practices. The owner of this shop who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said that his shop was frequented by people of all ages and that in his wildest nightmares he could not have envisaged that his shop would go up in flames.
But it didn’t stop at the shops; a number of writers and journalists were also targeted. Selim al Naffar, a renowned writer and leading figure in the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, received a threat from one of these groups warning that it will use means to deter and discourage his writing. Al Naffar said that he found a letter by his front door that was signed by the ‘Islamic Swords of Truth’ warning him of the consequences if he resumed writing critical articles about the Palestinian arena on a number of websites. However the ‘Islamic Swords of Truth’ has denied writing and sending any threatening letters to him or to any other writer affiliated to a Palestinian institution.
If this proves anything it would be the ease with which one can attribute words or deeds to illusory organizations and use it to threaten or inflict harm upon others – all of which is a result of the state of lawlessness that reigns. A case in point is the account of an Internet café owner who was recently kidnapped in Khan Yunis and robbed of the US $500 that he had in his possession.
Hamas MP from Khan Yunis in southern Gaza and lawmaker, Dr. Yehya Mousa, confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that these practices erupted as a result of the problems with security and that they will be immediately eliminated. The former professor at Gaza’s Islamic University said that these youth were driven by zeal and ignorance and pointed out that three vehicles are required to confront this phenomenon: the security element combined with the legal and the cultural elements. He stressed that security should not be limited to putting an end to these practices and that it should extend to stop any activities that aim towards disrupting public order.
For his part, Dr. Ghazi Hamad, the spokesman for the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority government told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Palestinian government is ascribing great importance to stop this phenomenon pointing out that the interior minister’s security plan tackles with this problem. He added that only the government and the security services had the right to question the owners of Internet cafes if unethical practices were suspected. He stressed that this right did not extend to any other individual or party whatsoever and added that the use of force lies in the hands of the government alone.