Hamas' Tightening Grip on Power: Targeting Fun in the Gaza Strip

By in Gaza City

For the few with money in the Gaza Strip, a new water park provided relief from monotony and widespread misery. Hamas, though, has now burned it down -- and sent a message that even the elite must conform to the Islamists' restrictive rules.

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All is quiet on this autumn morning at the Crazy Water Park, a couple of kilometers south of Gaza City. There are no children splashing around in the shallow kiddie pools, no men cheering as they shoot off the slides into the deep end of the pool. Wives and mothers are also missing from their usual spots under the umbrellas, where they normally sit, fully dressed, chatting and watching their children and husbands play in the water.

The Gaza Strip's only water park opened last spring but -- thanks to around 30 members of Hamas -- it was shut down in late September. One night at 3 a.m., these men appeared out of nowhere, tied up the park's 10 security guards and got to work with gas canisters and lighters.

The ensuing fire consumed the café and the building housing pool-related equipment. The stand where pool-goers could rent water pipes was a particular target. After a few incidents of modern-minded women openly smoking water pipes on the park's grounds, Hamas had issued the Crazy Water Park two warnings. When it happened a third time, an angered official from Hamas, the radical Islamist organization which controls the Gaza Strip, ordered more drastic measures to be taken. Not long later, the flames engulfing the water park's buildings could be seen from as far away as Gaza City.

The End of Tolerance

"That's one and a half million dollars, up in smoke," says Alladin Mohammed al-Araj, as he sadly surveys the empty pools, a burned-out lawnmower and charred chair frames. Together with some friends, Araj had provided the wealthiest of the Palestinians trapped within the Gaza Strip what everyone here is longing for: a little variety and a little fun.

The water park, for example, hosted parties featuring quizzes taken by husbands and wives. When members of Hamas got wind of the game, they began circulating rumors that the diversion actually involved wives' touching several men in order to identify which one was her husband -- a major no-no in the prudish Gaza Strip. These supposed touching games, combined with the park's willingness to allow women to smoke water pipes, were seen as sufficient justification for shutting it down -- by burning it down.

The Crazy Water Park was expensive, exclusive and only meant for the elite -- which makes it all the more surprising that Hamas has now decided to target it as part of its modesty campaign. Until now, the Islamists had tended to suffer the harmless escapades of the upper class in silence.

Now, Araj says, those days are over. "The riding club next door had to close for three days," he explains, "because men and women sat together." Gaza Sky, a seafood restaurant right on the beach, and the aptly named Beach Hotel were also forced to close their doors for three days, he adds, for allowing female patrons to smoke water pipes.

Rise of the Extremists

Given his past, Araj is surprised that Hamas targeted his water park with its new hard-line policies. Between 2006 and 2007, Araj served as the economics minister for the Hamas government. Although he isn't a member of Hamas, he has always cultivated close connections to those in power. "I thought I was one of the few people in Gaza that everyone got along with," he says.

He says that targeting of his water park comes due to the increased influence hard-liners have been able to gain for themselves within the government. "Unfortunately, it's the same as in any revolution," Araj says. "The extremists are pushing their way into leadership positions."

For months now, the new buzzwords in Gaza have been "Erdoganis" and "Talibanis": Hamas has split into two camps, say the political intelligentsia during their gatherings in cafés and living room. The moderate faction supposedly adheres to the ideas of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, advocating a democratic system with only a slight nod to Islam. The hard-liners, on the other hand, allegedly model themselves after the Taliban in Afghanistan and aspire to install a theocratic government.

"There is a clear dispute within Hamas," says Araj.

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