RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Gaza Strip has many troubles, and now add this: shadowy and violent fundamentalist gangs. They've been bombing and torching Internet cafes, DVD stores and other outlets they deem un-Islamic and immoral. This week, fundamentalist vigilantes seem to have struck again. Prostitutes were murdered and a public cultural center where teenagers mingle was blown up.
From Gaza, NPR's Eric Westervelt has this story.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Police say 30-year-old Iptafam Abu Ganeer's(ph) body was found first. She was one of three suspected prostitutes murdered this Tuesday night across different parts of northern Gaza. In conservative Gaza it's not uncommon for women accused of alleged immoral behavior to be killed by a family member -a so-called honor killing. But these killings, investigator Abu al-Abad(ph) says, are different. In his long career, he says, he's never seen three women murdered in one night, let alone three assassinated gangland style.
Mr. ABU AL-ABAD (Investigator): (Through translator) They were killed in the same way, a bullet in the head and a bullet in the chest, so that's indication this is not a normal crime or a family crime. It is organized crime; there is a group behind it.
WESTERVELT: No group has claimed responsibility; it's just another in a five-month-long series of unsolved violent crimes, bombings and arson attacks in Gaza against people suspected of immoral or decadent behavior. The attacks started last October. They've stretched from north to south and have hit a wide range of businesses, from DVD and modern music stores to restaurants and cultural centers. In December, in Rafah in the south, a cafeteria that allowed card playing was torched.
Rami(ph), who didn't want his full name used, owns a DVD store in the south central Gaza city of Khan Yunis. He says at first he laughed off the anonymous and strange cell phone call threatening to attack his small business for selling Western and other allegedly racy movies. It's just friends messing around, Rami thought, until another call came.
Mr. RAMI (Business Owner): (Through translator) It was a very serious voice and he told me that if I don't shut down my store right away, they will blow it up and they will burn it.
WESTERVELT: Rami closed his shop for a few weeks, turned to local militant factions for protection, and put up pictures of Islamic heroes and took down the posters of Hollywood blockbusters.
Internet entrepreneur Ahmed al-Rafati(ph) was not lucky enough to get a warning. One morning the 24-year-old arrived at the Internet café he owned to find that his business had been blown up. A statement from Sufal Hak Islamia(ph), or the Swords of Islamic Righteousness, claimed responsibility. The group said they were implementing the rule of God, and called shops like Rafati's, quote, "dirty, corrupted businesses that make you slaves of the devil mind," an apparent reference to online games and porn.
Mr. AHMED AL-RAFATI (Internet Entrepreneur): (Through translator) Because they think that those Internet coffee shops is wasting the time of the youth guys, keeping them away from praying, from liberating Palestine, from jihad, and so on. But this is actually unacceptable.
WESTERVELT: Rafati called the Swords group irrational. He says he had Internet filtering software in his now-destroyed café to block out porn sites.
Seemingly innocuous cultural centers, some of the few public places in Gaza where kids of the opposite sex can mingle, have also been attacked.
Early Wednesday morning last week, someone bombed this Gaza City cultural center where boys and girls fourteen and under learn traditional Palestinian folk dances, arts and crafts, and play sports. No one was seriously injured in the late-night blast. No group has claimed responsibility.
Nabil Barzak(ph), the center's deputy director, walks through the trashed building in disgust.
Mr. NABIL BARZAK (Deputy Director, Gaza City Cultural Center): (Through translator) There are some people which are radical, does not accept the mix between boys and girls. And they are sending a message for us to stop, or trying to stop our activities. But we are saying we will continue teaching, training, protecting our traditions.
WESTERVELT: This is not the first time Gaza's fundamentalists have gone on vigilante sprees targeting alleged immorality. In 2000, Hamas supporters attacked and destroyed the remaining two stores that sold alcohol in Gaza. On New Year's Eve 2004, unknown fundamentalists bombed and destroyed the U.N. Club, the last known place in Gaza that served alcohol.
No one knows who is carrying out these latest attacks, but since October the Swords of Islamic Righteousness, this obscure new faction, has claimed credit for blowing up more than 50 businesses it sees as morally corrupted. In fact, a careful check of the Interior Ministry police crime records for all of Gaza from October through February shows that police attribute only nine bombings to the Swords group.
The records show another 18 violent attacks across Gaza in that period, targeting businesses for alleged immorality. Other attacks almost certainly went unreported.
But it appears that the Swords of Righteousness boast of far more attacks than they've actually carried out, and that's likely key to the group's strategy. Their elusive, anonymous violence has only heightened their mystery and stature, and has had a wider chilling effect on this close-knit society. Call it the creeping Talibanization of Gaza.
Ms. NAYLA AESH(ph) (Manager, Women's Center): These religion group we don't know who are they. And here is the problem.
WESTERVELT: Nayla Aesh runs a women's center in Gaza City. She says these murky attacks have now made many women, including many secular women, more scared to walk the streets without a male relative or without covering up.
Ms. AESH: In Gaza you can see few numbers of women who are not covering their heads. It doesn't mean that the most of the women who cover their heads they are religion, but some of them, really, they afraid to go outside the home without covering.
WESTERVELT: Gaza security officials are investigating the possibility that these vigilante moralists have the tacit or even explicit backing of Hamas. Abu al-Abad is investigating the crimes. He didn't want his full name used, to protect his safety.
Now the security forces are dominated by men like Abu al-Abad. He's loyal to Fatah, Hamas's main rival. But Abu al-Abad says he has hard evidence. Analysis of explosive residue at the crime scenes, he says, links Hamas's underground paramilitary wing, the Izadim al-Kassam(ph) brigades, and its more official police force to the wave of attacks.
Mr. AL-ABAD: (Through translator) Our primary investigation shows that the Swords of Islamic Righteousness includes members of Hamas's executive force, and they are supported directly by the Kassam groups.
WESTERVELT: Investigators say some members of Hamas are working by proxy to do what they can't do openly now that they're leading the government, trying to impose an Islamist social agenda across Gaza.
Hamas supporters dismiss those allegations. The spokesman for Hamas's executive force, Islam Sharwan(ph), calls the charges that Hamas is behind the Swords of Righteousness ridiculous.
Mr. ISLAM SHARWAN (Spokesman, Hamas Executive Force): (Through translator) This is totally incorrect information. Hamas has nothing to do with the group, and we are investigating these attacks to protect the Palestinian people. If a member of a faction has done this, they will be exposed and arrested.
WESTERVELT: Meantime, at week's end the bodies of the three women, the alleged prostitutes, were retrieved quietly from the Gaza City hospital morgue. One male relative from each family came, the mortician says, and silently took the body away.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.
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