In Gaza, a lion’s return brings hope
In the grubby little zoo outside Gaza City, a man gave a thumbs up to a lion in a cage.
“Welcome back,” he said, as his children beamed at the animal.
Sabrina had been snatched from her cage two years earlier, and the young cub had become a symbol of the lawlessness that characterized the Gaza Strip. But last month, Hamas forces freed Sabrina from a notorious criminal gang.
To many Gazans, Sabrina’s release is a vivid example of how security has improved since the Islamic militant group Hamas routed Fatah forces to take control of the Gaza Strip.
In the days following the mid-June takeover, Hamas officials sent out their civil army, known as the Executive Force, to seemingly every street corner. Fatah officials and security forces loyal to that faction, meanwhile, disappeared from the streets.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah dismissed the Hamas government elected in January 2006 and appointed an emergency Cabinet. That left Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip while Fatah rules the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority and Abbas are based.
In Gaza, the Hamas forces, clad in blue combat uniforms and armed with assault rifles, now act as de facto police officers and traffic wardens. After the takeover, they freed hostages held by other factions. They disarmed other groups and banned celebratory gunfire at weddings and the use of masks in public. And they rearrested convicted criminals who had escaped during the fighting.
“Gaza, in the last year and a half, was so messed up, such a miserable place,” said Raji Sourani, the director of the independent Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza. Now, “there are no more blocks, checkpoints or firing even at weddings anymore.”
The judicial system is in tatters, and Israel has shut down its borders with Gaza, blocking most goods and people except for limited humanitarian aid. The boycott has devastated the already frail and aid-dependent Gaza economy.
“Before, there were budgets and money but without security,” said Hatam Hamood, 34, a government worker in Gaza. “Now there is security, but there is no money.”
On a recent evening, a top Hamas commander, Abu Hama Adeeb, was seated at a large, uncluttered desk, a satellite phone and several cellphones within reach in his spartan office in a heavily guarded compound in central Gaza.
Adeeb, a tall, muscular man wearing black combat pants and a black shirt, monitored traffic on a radio, dispatching his lieutenants to various parts of the city.
“In many cities after the overthrow of a government, there is chaos and killing,” he said. “But here, the situation is normal and people feel secure.”
Killings were commonplace in Gaza even before the June clashes in which at least 160 people were killed and 500 wounded. Although reliable crime statistics covering the Gaza Strip are hard to come by, interviews with residents, observers and nongovernmental groups suggest that violence and other types of serious crime, notably kidnappings, have decreased considerably.
For many, the relative peace, the Hamas crackdown on crime and the release of several high-profile victims (including the lion) have burnished the image of Hamas and its militia as a guarantor of order in Gaza, an image the group is eager to cultivate.
The Hamas takeover has changed the cityscape in other ways as well. The Executive Force has removed checkpoints and roadblocks, easing Gaza’s congested traffic.
Just days after the fighting ended, clerics in their Friday sermons urged worshipers to give up their guns and Hamas officials went on radio shows to spread the message. For days, Hamas forces hauled in truckloads of guns and rocket launchers.
“It used to be a fashion, like mobile phones -- everybody had to have the latest model of Kalashnikov,” Adeeb said.
Today, only Hamas members and police officers are allowed to carry weapons, Adeeb said. He said later that certain factions are allowed keep their guns because they are directed against Israeli troops who withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and who still make regular incursions into the territory.
“Two months ago, the situation was out of control,” said Hatam Hamood, 34, who in June would shield his children on the floor as snipers exchanged fire in his neighborhood. “We were calling everybody -- the Hamas and the Fatah people -- to stop the fighting.”
But mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades would rock the high-rise building where the Hamood family lives. His children would vomit in fear, he said, and his 9-year-old son Ahmad began losing his hair. Eventually, they left their apartment, only returning after the Hamas takeover.
“Before, I couldn’t protect my kids,” he said. “But now, I’m sitting here with my wife and kids, safe, and we can go wherever we want to.”
With the Executive Force taking on the role of traffic wardens, driving has become considerably more orderly in the overcrowded strip that is home to almost 1.5 million people.
But though the Hamas militia members act like the police, they are not officers of the law.
“Hamas is giving the impression that they are in control and that everything functions normally,” said Sourani of the human rights center. “But if somebody makes a traffic offense, who will write the ticket? Somebody breaks into my house. They will arrest him, beat him up and send him home?”
Hamas officials say they have asked police to come back on the job. The Palestinian Authority caretaker government in the West Bank, which doesn’t recognize Hamas’ authority, has said it won’t pay members of the Executive Force.
On Thursday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad again called on Hamas to “relinquish any and all claims to legitimacy” as a governing force in Gaza. Speaking to foreign journalists in Ramallah, Fayyad said such a move was a precondition for resolving the political impasse.
Fatah’s tendency to discount Hamas’ control of Gaza is a risky strategy, Sourani said.
“We have asked the president not to politicize this,” he said. “It’s giving [Hamas] an excuse to form revolutionary courts.”
Israeli politicians and Fatah party officials have alleged that the Islamist group wants to institute Islamic Sharia law and that Al Qaeda members have come into Gaza. The slaying last month of three women, apparent “honor” killings, received big play in the Israeli and pro-Fatah media. Some commentators now simply refer to Gaza as “Hamas-stan.”
Hamas officials deny that the group has links with or is inspired by Al Qaeda.
“We don’t want an Islamic or non-Islamic emirate,” Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ political leader, told a gathering of clerics in Qatar last month. He also apologized for “mistakes” during the Hamas takeover and called for dialogue with Fatah about rebuilding and reforming the Palestinian security forces.
In Gaza, Adeeb said Hamas wants to rebuild the courts and is examining all prisoners’ files. “We will not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands,” he said.
Sourani, whose organization monitors the rule of law in Gaza, said that, so far, there hadn’t been a major erosion of human rights except for a few incidents of the Executive Force beating up suspects. But he worried that the future might bring “the Iraqization of Gaza.”
Without a functioning judicial system or economy, Gaza could again become the lawless place of years past, he warned.
“I want to see security within the context of rule of law,” Sourani said. “It’s either the rule of law or the rule of the jungle.”
According to Adeeb, Hamas wants law, not jungle, in the Gaza Strip.
He offered the obvious example:
“The lion,” he said. “We returned it to the zoo.”
Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood in Jerusalem and special correspondent Hamada Abu Qamar in Gaza City contributed to this report.