AFTER midnight on the Gaza City beach, the crowds are still out, strolling under the stars. The beach road is jammed with cars, and a line of new restaurants are doing good business.
'You like whisky, perhaps?' asked a cafe owner, smiling under his fairy lights, and then peering into the darkness to make sure nobody had overheard. After eight years under Israeli-imposed curfew, Gazans, young and old, are reclaiming the nights as theirs, learning to enjoy life on the beaches, in the parks and in the streets. The self-denial of the intifada, in protest at the occupation, is being thrown to the winds.
For the first time in many years alcohol is being quietly offered in public places. Women are starting to venture on to the streets unveiled. The revellers know, however, that, while Israeli soldiers have now moved back, the 'moral police' of Gaza are still among them. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is watching.
In his apartment overlooking the beach, Hassan Deeb, a Hamas intellectual, has been monitoring the evils of the night. Women, he says, have been walking in public with men; walking in a 'bad fashion' and dressing against Islamic law. He has heard people singing in the street. 'They should be punished. They should be whipped.'
The sound of gunfire may have died down in Gaza but a new struggle is under way for control of the social mores. The battle lines are drawn between the militant fundamentalists of Hamas, and the secularists of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
In the 1970s, the Islamic movement in Gaza focused mainly on propagating its social and religious message. Hamas was only formed as another movement resisting the Israeli occupation after the intifada began in 1987. Gaza is more Islamic than the more cosmopolitan West Bank, which explains why women dress more modestly, alcohol is frowned on, and there are no cinemas or theatres.
The Islamic message has been spread from the mosques, and reinforced through fear imposed by Hamas' armed thugs. And Hamas was assisted by the Israeli-imposed curfew. 'Too much freedom is not good,' says Mr Deeb. 'It is in the night that people steal and commit their sins.'
Now, however, the PLO-brokered self-rule has become a reality and the majority of Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho want to give their new-found freedoms a chance.
The ability of Hamas to halt the new secularism in Gaza will depend on the readiness of the Palestinian police to stand up to it. Meanwhile, the new PLO self-rule authority is coming under pressure from Hamas to introduce Islamic laws into the new Palestinian legal code: imprisonment for adultery, for example. But PLO leaders insist, for now, that the law will be secular.
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