In the West Bank, Can the Islamist Tide Be Turned?

(Economist-UK) The religious-affairs ministry of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) told all the imams in the West Bank it was their religious duty to dedicate their Friday prayer to campaign for Palestinian political prisoners. But in Hebron, the PA authorities were outsmarted by the Islamists, where Hamas Palestinian parliament Mahir al-Badr began speaking instead. Far from following the PA's script, he lambasted Egypt for pleasing Israel by building siege walls around Gaza, the enclave run by Hamas. "We couldn't do anything to stop him," bemoaned a religious-affairs official. "He had parliamentary immunity." The PA's religious-affairs minister, Mahmoud Habbash, has dispatched 200 new imams to manage mosques hitherto run by their pro-Hamas rivals. He issues scripted weekly sermons and instructs censors to monitor mosques and verify compliance. All the West Bank's 1,700 mosques, including nearly 300 in conservative Hebron, are now, he says, in government hands. Yet not everything has gone the PA's way. Worshippers in Nablus and Ramallah have ejected imams who condemned the Islamists in Friday sermons. Elsewhere official imams have had shoes thrown at them. It is unclear whether the PA's muzzling of the Islamists has dented their popularity. Some former recipients of Hamas charities admit they have switched allegiance since the Islamists' social services have run dry. Opinion polls show Fatah well ahead, but pollsters reckon many Hamas sympathizers are shy of identifying themselves. A recent survey shows that, though the PA is praised for bringing stability by cutting crime and clan feuding, three-quarters of the people still agree with Hamas that Islamic law should be applied. "More and more Palestinians, particularly women and the young, are identifying with a religious rather than national struggle," says a pollster at Near East Consulting, a leading West Bank barometer.

2010-02-12 07:44:55

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