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Islamic fundamentalist group suspected of killing prostitutes

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—The murders of three women in this Palestinian territory between Israel and Egypt may be an ominous turn in a five-month campaign by militant Islamists to impose their conservative beliefs on Gaza's 1.4 million people.

The first body was found early Tuesday on a deserted Mediterranean beach that's popular for family picnics. The second was dumped hours later in a nearby farming town close to the Israeli border. The third was left in a Gaza City neighborhood.

All three had been killed the same way, police said: with one shot to the head and one to the chest.

Police investigators say the women were prostitutes, and that while no group has claimed responsibility, they're investigating whether they were killed by the Swords of Islamic Righteousness, a shadowy new group that's looking to purge Gaza of what it considers the corrupting influence of Western culture.

Until now, the Swords and other renegade groups have limited their campaign largely to bombing closed businesses, including more than two dozen Internet cafes, music shops, DVD stores, cultural centers, recreational clubs, pharmacies and other targets across the Gaza Strip.

"Get back to Allah and away from all those dirty, corrupting things," the group wrote in a warning delivered after it attacked one Gaza City Internet cafe. "Because you will never withstand the fire of hell and the torture at the end of your life."

The murders are increasing fears among Gaza Strip residents that hard-line militants are becoming more aggressive.

"We don't know who our enemy is," said Fadi Bakhit, a 25-year-old manager for a Gaza City rap group that sharply curtailed its performances last year after the hard-line Islamist group Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority. "If we knew our enemy we would fight it."

No one knows for sure who the Swords of Islamic Righteousness are. But some detectives think that the group may have either the tacit or explicit support of members of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority security forces.

One police investigator, who agreed to speak only on the condition that he be identified by a pseudonym, Abu Abed, because of the sensitivity of the topic, said that explosives the Swords of Islamic Righteousness had used in some bombings were the same kind used by the Hamas militant wing known as Izzedine al-Qassam.

He also said the group included people who served by day as members of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority security service known as the Executive Force.

But Islam Shahwan, a representative of the Executive Force in Gaza, rejected any links to the Swords of Islamic Righteousness, and the issue is clouded by the intense rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, the political faction to which many Palestinian police, including Abu Abed, owe their allegiance.

"They have no connection with Hamas," Shahwan said. "And if one guy was involved with such an operation, he does not represent the movement itself."

Shahwan dismissed the attacks as nothing more than family feuds and personal rivalries dressed up as political acts.

The Swords of Islamic Righteousness is in many ways an extension of a transformation of Gaza into a socially conservative bastion that began in the late 1980s at the start of the first Palestinian uprising. At that time, militants attacked wedding partiers and others whom they viewed as improperly celebrating during the uprising.

In the 1990s, Hamas fundamentalists took aim at movie theaters, shops selling alcohol and dance clubs. In 2000, Islamic militants torched a Gaza City hotel that served alcohol, an attack that still rattles the owners, who went on to open an alcohol-free restaurant.

On New Year's Eve 2005, militants bombed an empty United Nations club, effectively shuttering the last known place that openly served alcohol.

When Hamas took control of the government last year, many Palestinians worried that the group would try to impose its conservative social views.

But the new government has had little time to focus on social issues because it's been struggling simply to survive: combating international isolation because of its refusal to abandon its pledge to destroy Israel, fighting gun battles with Fatah militants and fending off Israeli military assaults after Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier last summer.

The tenuous political state provided an opening for the Swords of Islamic Righteousness to pursue its agenda, attacking Internet cafes it accused of providing access to pornographic Web sites, DVD stores selling risque films, restaurants thought to allow gambling and clubs where women and men could meet.

In November, the group claimed to have thrown acid on a woman who was wearing what it considered too much makeup, but police and medical officials said they had no reports of such an attack.

Other attacks are marked by confusion. On Wednesday, a bomb blasted the metal door of the Gaza City cultural center around 2 a.m., shattering windows in an adjacent building. Police said the attack on the Fatah-affiliated center might have been a response to a bombing of a Hamas leader's home the previous night.

But Nabil Barzak, the cultural center's deputy director, said the center could have been targeted because it brought boys and girls together to learn traditional Palestinian dance.

"There are some people who are radicals and don't accept mixing between boys and girls, and they are trying to send a message," Barzak said, standing on shattered glass in the center's doorway. "But we will continue."

Other attack victims say they've changed the way they do business.

Rami, 28, closed his DVD store in Khan Younis for more than a week last fall after he received anonymous phone threats telling him to shutter his store or it would be blown up. At first he thought it was a joke. But they called back. Friends intervened by assuring the would-be attackers that the store didn't sell anything immoral.

Still, Rami, who declined to give his last name because of fears that militants might track him down, makes sure that he doesn't display any Hollywood posters that might offend the group.

"I'm afraid because I'm not even certain that the issue was totally solved," said Rami, who considers himself a devout Muslim who prays five times a day. "We are not against the principle of Islam or Islamic law, but their way of implementing this principle is totally wrong."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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