A Palestinian female journalist complained over the weekend that Hamas policemen attempted to arrest her under the pretext that she came to a Gaza beach dressed immodestly and was seen laughing in public.
The journalist, Asma al-Ghul, said that the policemen instead confiscated her passport. Since the incident, she added, she has been afraid to leave her home, especially after receiving death threats from anonymous callers.
"They accused me of laughing loudly while swimming with my friend and failing to wear a hijab," Ghul told a human rights organization in the Gaza Strip. "They also wanted to know the identity of the people who were with me at the beach and whether they were relatives of mine."
In a phone interview with the Dubai-based Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news Web site, the journalist said that the policemen who stopped her belonged to the Hamas government's Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice security force.
The special force reports directly to the Ministry of Waqf Affairs and is said to be a copy of units that have long been operating in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
The Hamas government, according to local reporters, has refrained from publicly admitting that the force exists out of fear of being branded fundamentalist.
The Hamas force consists of dozens of plainclothes police officers who patrol beaches, public gardens, restaurants, hair salons and coffee shops to make sure that males and females are not mixing together and that the women are dressed modestly.
Ghul said that many Palestinian women have noticed the presence of the police officers at the beaches and other sites. She said that the talk in the Gaza Strip these days was about Hamas's intention to impose the hijab on all female school children from first to 12th grade.
She said she was astonished by the fact that the Hamas security forces were providing security to hotels that are frequented by women wearing miniskirts while at the same time targeting "common people" who go to the beaches and public parks.
Ghul said that Hamas has banned men in the Gaza Strip from swimming topless. "And as in my case, Hamas has banned women from laughing while swimming," she added.
She and her friends were stopped by Hamas policemen while swimming in the sea. She said that the policemen confiscated her passport and laptop after accusing her of laughing loudly and appearing in immodest clothes in a public place.
Two of her male friends were detained for questioning for three hours. They said the police officers beat them and abused them verbally before releasing them.
Hamas security commanders initially said that the journalist and her friends were stopped because they were having a mixed party at the beach. Later, one of the commanders said that Ghul was stopped because she was not wearing a hijab while swimming. Another commander claimed that the journalist and her friends were stopped because they had been seeing smoking nargilas and partying in a public place.
Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Hamas security forces, said that policemen have been deployed at the beaches at the request of the Ministry for Waqf Affairs. He said the policemen's task is to impose law and order and prevent harassment of families picnicking and swimming at the beaches.
"We are there for the safety of the people," he said. "We operate there to prevent men from harassing women. We've received many complaints about these negative practices."
Shahwan said that Hamas does not interfere with the way women want to dress. However, he stressed, "we must preserve our Islamic culture and traditions. If there's a woman who wants to dress as she wishes, she must go to a private swimming pool and not to a public place."
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