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Gaza's Islamist rulers hounding secular community

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The Gallery Cafe, one of Gaza's last secular spots, is a freeze-frame of their lonely fortunes.

About a dozen chain-smoking men and three women swigged nonalcoholic beer and sugary mint tea on a recent night as they debated the protests sweeping the Arab world. They huddled on plastic chairs under a marquee, pummeled by chilly wind.

The trend toward religious fundamentalism preceded the Hamas takeover. In recent years, hard-liners have burned down the cinemas. Their charred remains are still visible in Gaza City. Militants blew up the last bar in 2005.

Gaza women, whose attire once varied from Western pants and skirts to colorful traditional embroidered robes, began donning ankle-length loose robes. Women with face veils, once rarely seen in Gaza, are now a common sight.

After winning the 2006 election, Hamas vowed it wouldn't impose Islamic law. But within two years, bureaucrats began ordering changes that targeted secular Gaza residents.

During the summer of 2009, plainclothes Interior Ministry officials on beach patrols ordered men to wear shirts.

Today, plainclothes officers sometimes halt couples in the streets, demanding to see marriage licenses. Last year, the Interior Ministry banned women from smoking water pipes in public. Islamic faith does not ban women from smoking, but it is considered taboo in Gaza society.

In November, officials shuttered the U.N.-funded Sharek Youth Forum, Gaza's largest youth organization and a popular hangout for secular youth.

Sharek employees say they were interrogated over pornography found on some staff computers. They said it was the personal material of some employees and offered to punish them for inappropriate behavior.

In January, the Culture Ministry confiscated two novels from Gaza City's dusty Ibn Khaldoun bookshop. They said residents complained the books offended Islamic values.

One described the lives of Egyptian immigrants in the U.S. and has been criticized for portraying a romantically involved unmarried couple. The other, an 18-year-old book by Syrian writer Haidar Haidar called "A Banquet for Seaweed," was deemed blasphemous in parts of the Muslim world because it contains phrases describing God as a "failed artist" and the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer.

Pockets of dissent remain. Gaza human rights groups frequently and publicly denounce Hamas campaigns.

One group of Gaza youth issued a call for support on Facebook, raging against their Hamas rulers, the U.N., and Israel. Most people who joined the effort live abroad.

Jamal Sharif, an English-language lecturer, said many Gazans live two lives: They submit to Hamas rules on the streets, but keep their own, more secular, ideas alive at home through the Internet and satellite TV.

"That's where we learn to be cultured," Sharif said.

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© 2011 The Associated Press

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