Cartoons: not only the devout have been offended

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The Independent Online

That Gaza should be an immediate flashpoint in the rumble of protest building across the Middle East against the offending cartoons is in one respect hardly a surprise.

The society has as strong a religious element and is as conservative in outlook as any in the Palestinian occupied territories. From Sheikh Abdel Latif, a peaceable Imam in Gaza City's Beach Refugee Camp who yesterday said philosophically of the Prophet Mohammed, that the "the tree that bears fruit is the one that people throw stones at" to Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader here who spoke out against the targeting of foreign individuals and institutions, religious Muslims here also made the point yesterday that Muslims honour all the prophets honoured in other religions, like Abraham, Moses and Jesus, which adds to the sense of affront many feel about attacks against the Prophet Mohammed.

That said, it is not only the devout who have been offended by the cartoons. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians who are Muslims see themselves as such, even if they are secular in outlook, every bit as much as secular Jews still see themselves as Jews.

The large majority of both religious and secular Palestinian Muslims would not believe in targeting foreigners or punishing their institutions here, whether or not they have been significant donors here, as the Scandinavians have, or not. Many will even see the arguments in favour of free speech. But just as many would also see their freedom to boycott goods from the offending countries as an equal and reciprocal right.

But the reason that deep and widespread offence at the cartoons may have led to threats, including of kidnap, against foreign nationals, and even against Gaza's small community of Palestinian Christians, has nearly as much to do with politics as religion.

It has become a truism to say that lawlessness, including the use of guns in the street, has been growing in Gaza. In one sense Gaza, given the proliferation of small and manifold social problems like poverty and unemployment among its 1.4m people, still remains a surprisingly orderly society. But there have been rising outbreaks of internal violence over several months, mostly --though not all-- within the fractured Fatah organization defeated in last week's elections.

It is tempting to think the Fatah-linked militants who were among those who paid an ominous visit to the EU offices here may have been trying to show they were as good Muslims as those in Hamas. But either way Hamas, for one, has not been slow to make the point that the violence has been coming from Fatah and not from themselves. As in general so yesterday.

Dr Zahar yesterday not only said unequivocally that protests against the cartoons should be confined to "legal means" but promised the Gaza Christians protection until such time as Hamas could reform and organize a security service which, unlike the present Fatah dominated one, could bring peace to the streets. Militants of Islamic Jihad did indeed join those from the Fatah linked al Aqsa Brigades in armed protest at the EU office here yesterday.

But it is an irony that of the two big rival groups in Palestinian politics it is Hamas, much the more religious and Islamic of the two, that has been in the forefront in committing itself to internal law and order both before and after yesterday's threats.