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Hamas' conservative brand of Islam stirs worry among Palestinians

JIFNA, West Bank—For more than 40 years, Michel Tabash has made a living selling whiskey, beer, vodka and wine at his small family restaurant nestled in this Christian town between olive groves and a Palestinian refugee camp.

The restaurant has survived war, Israeli occupation and the economy-draining Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which forced the family to shutter its doors for nearly four years. Now, 18 months after reopening, Tabash is worried that he may be forced out of business again—this time by the new Hamas-dominated government.

After decades of secular leadership under the late Yasser Arafat, many Palestinians are bracing for a seismic social shift as Hamas' new legislators propose imposing conservative interpretations of traditional Muslim values, including no alcohol, separation of the sexes and veils for women.

"I'm worried, and I'm not the only one," Tabash said Sunday as he smoked cigarettes in his nearly empty cafe. "I have nothing but this restaurant."

Some young Palestinians say they are considering leaving the territories in light of the prospects.

"I call this the first true intifada," said Mohammad Al Hamaidi, a Muslim father of six and program manager for a U.S.-run development group in the West Bank. "If they impose strict Islamic laws as we have heard about in Iran or Afghanistan, it won't work here. No way."

Just how far Hamas will be able to push its social values is unclear. The Palestinian election authority announced official results Sunday showing that the group won 74 of the 132 seats in the new Palestinian Legislative Council, a 56 percent majority. But new laws still must be approved by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate and Arafat's immediate successor.

The group also is likely to be consumed by more pressing problems, including a near-bankrupt government and threats of international isolation.

Even so, the group's leaders aren't doing much to assuage concerns that they will push a conservative social agenda.

One of the group's incoming lawmakers wants to see the legislature consider a bill that would require all women to wear modest head-coverings. Another said Sunday that Hamas will press ahead with plans to separate girls and boys in Palestinian schools.

"Why do we have immorality in the West?" said Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir, who was second on Hamas' list of candidates in last week's election. "Isn't it because of co-education? Our society is conservative and when we separate, we bring these children up in such a way that we keep our society clean. The highest levels of sexual perversion are found in the West."

Another top Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, also blasted secular society.

"Do you think the secular system is serving any nation?" Zahar told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" on Sunday. "Secular system allows homosexuality, allows corruption, allows the spread of the lot of natural immunity, like AIDS."

Sitting in the back of Tabash's restaurant drinking beer on Sunday with his family, Palestinian pollster Nader Said, a Birzeit University professor, said Hamas recognizes that most Palestinians in the West Bank wouldn't support such moves.

"This is not Afghanistan. This is not Pakistan. This is a very different place," he said.

But the Christian owners of what they call the world's first Palestinian brewery aren't taking anything for granted. With Hamas preparing to take over, the Taybeh brewery is gearing up to introduce a new non-alcoholic beer whose label, not entirely coincidentally, will be green—Hamas' color.

"We believe green will be a good match for the new government," said brewery owner Nadim Khoury, who personally blocked angry rioters from burning down his factory last year.

In its 11-year-history, the Taybeh Brewing Co. has faced an endless series of challenges in the largely Muslim area.

The company was pushed out of the Gaza Strip five years ago after Hamas supporters blocked Taybeh from selling its beer and torched the home of one of its local dealers. Last summer, an angry mob tried to burn down the brewery after a Muslim woman from a nearby village was allegedly killed by her parents for having an affair with a man from the Christian community.

Still, Khoury hopes that the new responsibilities of government will transform Hamas into a more moderate group.

"I think they're smart and they will change," said Khoury. "We have a saying in Arabic: Only the good ones change."


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

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

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