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Islamic University is the intellectual center for Hamas

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—The basement bookstore at Gaza City's Islamic University has everything a Palestinian student needs to get through the day, from pens and pencils to notebooks and munchies to power up for class.

But the one-stop shop also features a few items that set the campus apart: Stacked at the entrance, alongside bootlegged video games and Harry Potter movies, are DVD tributes to Hamas "martyrs" killed in clandestine attacks on Israelis and recordings of fiery speeches by the Islamist militant group's spiritual leaders.

If Hamas' dramatic ascent to power in last month's Palestinian legislative elections was a political earthquake, Islamic University served as its intellectual epicenter. Virtually every major Hamas figure—living and dead—has taught or studied at the tranquil 25-acre campus in the heart of Gaza City, which some call Hamas U.

Sixteen members of the faculty, staff and university board of trustees will be part of the Hamas bloc in the new Palestinian Legislative Council, making up about one-fifth of the group's dominant majority. Many other incoming lawmakers, including some from the rival Fatah party, polished their political skills in these classrooms.

"Islamic University has been very rich soil for many leaders," said Dr. Jehad Hamad, a professor of political sociology at the rival Al Azhar University across the street.

Over the last 27 years, Islamic University has evolved from a rudimentary campus of tents for classrooms into a widely respected school with 17,000 students.

Here, politics and religion fuse to create a vibrant Hamas incubator that's succeeded in producing the new generation of Palestinian lawmakers.

The group's top political figure, Ismail Haniyeh, studied here. Gaza leader Mahmoud Zahar taught medicine. Jamila Shanty, the founder of the Hamas women's section, worked in the English department. Jamal Naji Khudari, the chairman of the university's board of trustees and an independent candidate backed by Hamas, is being talked about as perhaps the next prime minister.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, one of the group's best-known leaders, served on the university faculty and denounced President Bush as an "enemy of Islam" at a campus rally a few weeks before Israel assassinated him in 2004. Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas political official whom Israel assassinated in 2003, served as the dean of one of the colleges. Mohammed Deif, who's considered the group's top bomb-maker, was a student here alongside Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, a newly elected lawmaker who's emerged as one of Hamas' most ardent adversaries.

Traces of Hamas are everywhere on campus. The modest university museum features framed congratulatory letters from "martyrs" Rantisi and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader whom Israel also assassinated in 2004. A poster of Yassin hangs on the bookstore wall where the Hamas CDs and DVDs are sold. And the student council long has been dominated by Hamas.

Sitting in his expansive office in a new administration building paid for by Bahrain, Islamic University President Kamalain Shaath took in the Hamas political victory with a mix of optimism, joy and anxiety.

"I am proud to be part of this change," said Shaath, a quiet, Western-trained civil engineering professor. "But I have cautious pride, because this could give more trouble than fruit."

Like so many other institutions across the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Shaath said, his campus has been transformed into a Hamas stronghold, especially in the 15 years since Fatah leaders broke away to create the rival Al Azhar University, a fissure that's led to student clashes over the years.

"Islamic University was established as any other university, but gradually it became Hamas," Shaath said. "Hamas is affecting the whole community—and we are affected as well."

The university has flourished with aid from around the world, primarily from Arab nations but also from Europe, the World Bank and United States. Intel is launching a $1 million computer-training project this year. The U.S. Agency for International Development has paid for several projects, including a small clean-water program in 2004.

Anna-Maija Litvak, a spokeswoman for U.S. AID, said Islamic University had been "fully vetted" and had signed America's required anti-terrorism certificate before receiving any money.

"Financing higher education and training opportunities is part of our program, and Islamic University is one among many institutions that we fund," she said.

Islamic University essentially operates as two parallel schools: one for the 10,000 women and one for the 7,000 men. Professors hold separate office hours so the halls will be filled with men one hour and women the next. The sexes have segregated cafeterias, classes and even entrances on opposite sides of the campus.

At the women's gate, security guards watch to make sure that students' head scarves don't reveal any hair and they are wearing the appropriate long, loose Islamic dresses. Sometimes the gate watchers hand out tissues to ensure that women don't come onto campus wearing makeup.

Becky Lewis, a University of South Carolina English professor who had a rare opportunity to teach at Islamic University for a semester in 1998 with her husband, said she was surprised when her female students took offense at a description of women wearing bathing suits in a John Updike short story.

After much debate about the story's message, the students decided to write to Updike, praising his writing but criticizing his description of women's bodies.

"They loved it in the end," Lewis said.

No one is quite sure where the new Hamas political era will lead. Some are in favor of a Cabinet dominated not by Hamas but by technocrats acceptable to the outside world. Others, such as 21-year-old Islamic University student Samia Hamaad, want to see the party they voted into power stick to their principles.

Wearing a white head scarf and veil that barely revealed her eyes, Hamaad said Israel should be worried about the incoming government because voters had chosen a strong voice for the Palestinian people.

"Where Islam is found, success is found," the young English major said. "We will help Hamas and trust Hamas to return all our lands—all the lands of Palestine."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): HAMAS-UNIVERSITY

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