GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — If you think of the Gaza Strip as a volatile, violent battleground run by fanatic Islamist militants bent on destroying Israel, Hamas wants you to think again.
Think: "Safe, clean and green."
One month after seizing the Gaza Strip in a military rout that shattered brittle Palestinian unity, Hamas is embarking on a radical marketing campaign to promote what it calls "the new face of Gaza."
They call it the "Gaza Riviera."
Lime-green Hamas banners flutter over Gaza City with a message in English for aid workers and journalists worried about being kidnapped: "No more threat for our foreign visitors and guests."
Bearded gunmen in blue-gray camouflage uniforms who helped seize control of Gaza now rush to settle routine neighborhood squabbles and family disputes.
Once-deserted Mediterranean beaches are now filled with dozens of families holding picnics to escape the summer heat until long after midnight.
On Monday, Hamas is planning to take journalists on a special tour of the Gaza Strip, from the packed beaches to the bullet-scarred security compounds its Islamist fighters overran last month when they ousted Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
While the United States and Israel are working to help Abbas transform the West Bank into a model of pro-Western modernity — and isolate and marginalize Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the process — Hamas is working to assure the world that it has no plans to turn the Gaza Strip into a Taliban-style police state.
"This is our new Riviera," boasted Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader who has narrowly escaped several assassination attempts, including a 2003 Israeli airstrike on his Gaza City home. "This is the most secure period in the history of Gaza."
Using a mix of military force and political persuasion, Hamas has succeeded in creating a sense of safety in the Gaza Strip. But many Palestinians don't believe this quiet will last very long.
Attacks on Internet cafes have come to a halt. For the time being, rival Gaza Strip families have stopped taking up arms to resolve their disputes. And fears of renewed factional fighting between disciplined Hamas forces and demoralized Fatah fighters are virtually nil.
But Hamas hasn't reined in Islamic Jihad and other militant groups, which regularly fire rudimentary Qassam rockets at southern Israeli towns and could provoke an Israeli invasion. Israel routinely responds by launching airstrikes on Palestinian militants. On Thursday alone, five Palestinians were killed in several Israeli airstrikes.
The Hamas "safe streets" marketing campaign also obscures intractable problems facing Hamas — which was the leading perpetrator of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians between 2000 and 2005 — as it tries to use its impoverished base in Gaza to establish itself as a central political player in the new Middle East.
Hundreds of Gaza Strip police officers, judges and soldiers loyal to Abbas refuse to work for Hamas. Israel allows almost nothing but critical food and medical supplies across its border with Gaza, creating a shortage of everything from cigarettes to concrete mix. Major Gaza Strip factories, unable to get raw material in and finished goods out, have been shuttered.
United Nations officials and humanitarian groups have warned that the battered economy is in danger of collapse. And growing numbers of middle-class families are quietly preparing to escape as soon as the borders open.
Sitting on a southern Gaza Strip beach, Ahmed Yousef, the Hamas leader behind the "safe, clean and green" slogan, said his group has no plans to impose strict Islamic rule on the 1.5 million residents.
"If we succeed here, the people in the West Bank will keep looking to this model," Yousef said as groups of women in long black abayas waded into the ocean for an early evening swim. "We don't want to promote the way of the Taliban."
Yousef criticized Gaza Strip militants who kidnapped Westerners such as Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent who was freed after 114 days in captivity after Hamas took control.
After Johnston's release, Israel quickly noted that Hamas was still holding Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier it had captured last summer.
But Yousef said Hamas would hold Shalit for 10 years if that's what it took to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. And he warned that the group might try to capture more Israeli soldiers if there's no deal for Shalit.
"If the Israelis are not interested in releasing those prisoners, we have to find another way," he said. "We will keep trying to capture an Israeli soldier. If one is not enough, the second, or maybe the third, maybe the Israelis will accept that."
Yousef pointed to the triumph of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted political party in last week's elections in Turkey as a model of a patient, gradual Muslim political movement generating change.
Though Hamas still refuses to explicitly accept Israel as a neighbor, Yousef urged Israel and the world to work with them.
"You can actually deal with Hamas and work with them to moderate them," he said. "Don't make them your enemy. We should try these things before blocking the road. Everybody tried to destroy Hamas and didn't give us a chance. Deal with us."