Gaza in Crisis The Strong Female Voice of Hamas

Isra al-Mudallal is the outspoken, strong-willed new spokesperson for the Hamas government in Gaza. Her goal is to become a role model for young girls -- but first she has to overcome the region's conservative traditions.

Give me a minute, the delicate-looking woman behind the giant desk says. With her right hand, Isra al-Mudallal pulls a prayer rug out of her handbag, with her left, she lifts her daughter from the floor onto her lap. She places a sheet of paper and crayons in front of the child, kisses her on the temple, and then the first female spokesperson for the Islamist organization Hamas disappears into the next room to pray.

But I have an appointment, says a gray-suited employee of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German center-left political foundation, as she rushes past him. "You'll have to wait," Muddallal says, and leaves the man sitting there in her office on the third floor of a dusty high-rise in Gaza City.

When the prayer is finished and the man is able to introduce himself, he talks about former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who opened the foundation's office in Gaza . Does she know, he asks, that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had recently been for a visit?

"Interesting," Mulallal says, in very British fashion. Her smartphone vibrates. She is 23 years old, wearing a blue blazer, a tight jersey skirt and Ray-Ban eyeglasses.

How does she see the current situation, the man asks, now stuttering slightly.

Mudallal raises her eyebrows to the edge of her hijab. "We have been in the midst of a humanitarian crisis here since 2007," she says, but the situation in the past few months has been catastrophic, mostly because of Egypt.

A New Reconciliation

During President Mohammed Morsi's one-year rule, Egypt was a close ally to Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. But since the military coup, Cairo and Hamas have become enemies, and the latter's other important ally, Iran, alienated Hamas when the organization sided with the rebels in Syria.

Recently, the isolated Hamas has had to make compromises. It regularly prevents radical groups from shooting rockets into Israel, and just a few weeks ago, the group reconciled with the moderate Fatah in the West Bank. Isra al-Mudallal's appointment as the Hamas government's spokesperson in Gaza was likewise an attempt by the Islamists to create a friendlier image.

Isra al-Mudallal sits on the edge of her chair, back upright and palms on the table. The reconciliation agreement with Fatah, which governs the West Bank, was signed after years of strife with Hamas and could end the suffering, she says. Both sides have released political prisoners since then and now Fatah newspapers can once again be read in the Gaza Strip. But otherwise, not much has changed -- Hamas continues to run Gaza, and Mudallal is still the spokesperson for her government, a government that shouldn't exist anymore.

Mudallal has posted a photo of herself and her counterpart in Ramallah on her Facebook page, both smiling. Everything relating to the transitional government is handled by her West Bank counterpart. The government includes four ministers from Gaza, but they are neither members of Hamas nor Fatah. Indeed, their membership in the cabinet is more a gesture of good will; the ministers from Gaza aren't allowed to travel to Ramallah.

Hamas in Crisis

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promised that the new government would recognize Israel, but Hamas continues to resist. "They arrest our children and destroy our homes," says Mudallal, whose family fled from a village not far from the Israeli city of Ashdod in 1948. She is convinced that the Israelis will never allow a Palestinian state. For her, Hamas is the dominant part of the new transitional government. Abbas' Palestinian Authority has been in dialogue with the Israelis for years, she says, but has accomplished nothing. Negotiations, Mudallal lectures, are pointless.

"Do you understand?", she asks the man from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, who is also Palestinian. He is standing in front of her desk like a schoolboy. When she becomes angry, she often speaks English and her voice becomes harsh.

The man nods and gives her his business card and she shakes his hand in return. Then, for the first time this afternoon, Mudallal leans back.

Just then, the air conditioning stops humming -- a power failure. Because diesel from Israel is expensive, Hamas has switched off Gaza's only power plant and there is electricity for just a few hours each day. Qatar is currently paying for the fuel because Hamas is almost bankrupt. It has been particularly cash poor since the Egyptian army destroyed tunnels used for smuggling; the tunnel economy had been the Islamists' main source of income. The lack of customs revenues has translated to Hamas losses of an estimated $15 million per month over the past year. For the population, that means a shortage of basic foodstuffs, gasoline, construction materials and other necessities.

'She Is So Arrogant'

The next morning, a committee focusing on strengthening the rights of women is meeting in the Ministry of the Interior and Mudallal has been invited to attend. Seven women and two men sit around a table beneath a framed Koran surah. There are chocolate cookies and sweet tea. The committee is presenting a 50-page report outlining its plans for a women's newspaper, a web site and movies.

"We don't need another blah-blah conference," Mudallal interrupts, brusquely. The group should address specific problems instead, she argues. How can it be, for example, that the wife of a killed Palestinian is forced to marry his brother?

One of the women at the table rolls her eyes under her folded-up veil. "She is so arrogant," a neighbor whispers.

Isra al-Mudallal knows that she offends others. "Not many people like me," she says after the conference, and it doesn't seem to bother her much. She shakes men's hands and issues orders to them in English. She went to school in Bradford, England for five years, while her father was completed his Ph.D. "There, there was snow, colors, shopping malls," she says. "Here the kids play with garbage." Unlike her brother and sister, she returned to Gaza. She liked life in England, she says, but it wasn't her life. Even so, the first few months after her return were difficult and she often found herself wondering how people could live without the tiniest of luxuries -- and sometimes, without even basic necessities.

She studied communications at the Islamic University and was a host at a local religious TV station. Hamas asked her twice before if she would work for the movement, and she said no both times. Neither Mudallal nor her parents are members of a political party. "Then I thought, why not?" Challenges are there to be accepted, she says. That was in November 2013. She emphasizes that she speaks for the government, not for Hamas. When Mudallal mentions her employers, she never says "we."

Trying to be a Role Model

After the committee meeting, she carries her sleeping daughter to a taxi for the trip home to Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip. During the winter, the Egyptians closed the border crossing for 48 consecutive days and thousands of Palestinians were forced to wait for weeks before they could leave. This collective punishment, Isra al-Mudallal says, is a human rights abuse -- the kinds of angry words that used to be directed solely at Israel. But now, some people -- even if quietly -- reminisce about the time when the Israelis controlled the Gaza Strip. Back then, there was still freedom of movement and wages were paid.

The taxi bounces along the coastal road, past children sitting in front of Quonset huts, fires burning in open barrels. Mudallal's four-year-old daughter Mariam actually lives with Mudallal's ex-husband and his family in Gaza City, but every two weeks, Mudallal takes her for two days. Now she's even bought an apartment in a new building in Gaza City, though it isn't yet finished due to a lack of cement.

"I simply work too much," says Mudallal. But she also says that her daughter is the reason she is doing all of this. She wants to be a role model: a working, independent woman, to the degree it is possible, here in Gaza. Still, Palestinian women have it better than women in other Arab countries; they can drive, move about freely and work. The problem isn't the government or the law, she says, but tradition. Even if girls could ride bicycles, parents wouldn't allow it, she says

Will Mariam be allowed to ride a bike when she gets older?
"No, I don't want people to say bad things about her."

Mudallal got married at 18 to a computer programmer, but she says he didn't respect her. "He only wanted to control me." When she realized that she didn't like her life as a wife, she got divorced.

Although Mudallal says it is not her duty to change society, she recently jousted with the outgoing interior minister, a Hamas hardliner, when he only wanted veiled women to be present at his press conference. A journalist doesn't need to wear a headscarf, Mudallal countered. Yes, said the minister. No, said Mudallal. In the end, she prevailed.

Fenced-in Dreams

She knows what life is like outside of the Gaza Strip. She knows that sometimes there's little difference between being a role model and being a fig leaf. Some people think that Hamas has only liberalized on the outside while radicalizing internally, especially when it comes to dissenting opinions amongst its own people.

"Every government makes mistakes, including mine," says Mudallal. She doesn't like the way Hamas treats demonstrators or that it doesn't allow dissenting opinions. She has made a deal with her supervisors that, should she not approve of something, she won't be forced to comment on it. In such cases, another spokesperson will take over.

When she finally arrives in Rafah, she unloads boxes from her trunk containing a toaster and a blender. Her family lives in a spacious house with a garden and grass that, short and green, looks almost British. Her father, Walid al-Mudallal, a 50-year-old history professor, is sitting on the veranda. A calm, level-headed man in a tweed jacket, he has always kept Palestinian politics at arm's length, he says. What good is politics, he asks, if it has no room to enforce change? In Gaza, he adds, even the dreams are fenced in.

Then he recounts how he had counselled his daughter not to take the job as Hamas' spokesperson. It is too difficult, he argued. Not for his daughter, but for a Palestinian society that is not used to women like her.

Translated from the German by Thomas Rogers
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