In A 'Brilliant' Move, Hamas Puts A Woman Out Front

Isra al-Modallal is the first woman to be the public face of Hamas, the conservative group that rules the Palestinian territory. "Brilliant" is how one Gaza observer describes the decision.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

To Gaza now, where the Islamist government has an unexpected spokesperson. Isra al-Modallal is the first woman to be the public face of Hamas, the ultra-conservative group elected to rule the Palestinian territory, but considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union. She is also a single mother and was educated in England. NPR's Emily Harris has this profile.

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EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: First thing one Monday morning, Hamas government spokeswoman Isra al-Modallal was in downtown Gaza City looking for a cab.

ISRA AL-MODALLAL: I move a lot. I don't stay in my office; I move a lot.

HARRIS: That day, she went to a conference on the rights of the poor and unemployed; another day, to a screening of films by young Palestinians. Al-Modallal makes it a point to stop by media offices regularly. She likes to learn what reporters are picking up in the field.

AL-MODALLAL: It's very important for me to know what's really going on.

HARRIS: A former journalist herself, al-Modallal says she took the job as Hamas government spokeswoman four months ago because she believes the government should help the people.

AL-MODALLAL: I can see what's in the people's eyes and the same time, I can see what the responsibility of our government can do.

HARRIS: Her appointment was unusual for Gaza's Islamist government. She's not a member of the Hamas political party. She's young - 23 years old. And she's female in a society where men dominate public life.

AL-MODALLAL: When I came, it was a big push for all the women Palestinian to be encouraged to the political sides because this is our life - all of the Palestinian life issues relate to the political side.

ANDALEEB ADWAN: It's something brilliant from Hamas to put a woman on this position.

HARRIS: Andaleeb Adwan directs a community media training center in Gaza. She says a young, English-speaking woman offers a more sympathetic image of Hamas internationally than do militant men.

ADWAN: Maybe they expect a war, and Israel will tell the world about the victims of this war, about everything.

HARRIS: An all-out war hasn't broken out since November of 2012, when an eight-day Israeli military operation killed over 100 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. But last week, a Hamas rival in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for firing scores of rockets into Israel. Israeli warplanes then bombed more than two dozen places in Gaza it said were used by terrorist groups.

No one was hurt in either set of attacks. On her official Facebook page in English, al-Modallal blamed Israel's continued control over most of Gaza's borders for the military escalation. She says she's often asked why rockets continue to be fired from Gaza into Israel, when Israel withdrew its soldiers from the territory in 2005. Like a more experience spokesperson might, she prefers to turn the question around.

AL-MODALLAL: Why is Israel continuing this collective punishment on Gaza?

HARRIS: The view is different in Israel, where Hamas bombings on buses and in cafes killed hundreds of Israelis over the past 20 years. Hamas has not given up violence. But Berti Benedetta, a research fellow with Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, says the group has been struggling both financially and politically over the past year, as support from Egypt and Iran has dropped. Benedetta says this raises the stakes for how Hamas communicates with the rest of the world.

BERTI BENEDETTA: Hamas is interested in portraying itself as a legitimate government in Gaza, and part of doing that is harnessing international recognition and legitimacy. And if it cannot do that through government-to-government relations, then a different way is trying to open themselves up to the world.

HARRIS: That is part of al-Modallal's job. She's open about her personal life, sharing - among other things - that she's divorced, something common in the Western world but shameful to many Palestinians. She says divorce gave her freedom. Her ex-husband helps care for their young daughter, al-Modallal's joy.

AL-MODALLAL: When I see my daughter, I just forget everything about my work. I am a - totally - mother, and I have a wonderful time with her. She's my happiness.

HARRIS: Emily Harris, NPR News.

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