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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 April, 2004, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Gaza looks to its future
Palestinian workers near the Erez border crossing in northern Gaza
If Israel withdraws, it will still control the border crossings with Gaza
Gaza's political factions are jockeying for position ahead of the expected withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers, Paul Moss reports from Gaza City.

Basil Eleiwa is an easy guy to like.

Twinkly-eyed, with rather down-to-earth clothes which belie his wealth, we met at the site of one of his latest ventures, the Hungry Bite cafe and take-away in Gaza City.

But Basil had come to tell me about the fate which befell his last big project there, a hotel, where guests were allowed to drink alcohol.

"It started as a demonstration," he says.

"But then it became a mob attacking the building. By the time the fire brigade arrived, it had burned down."

For a man who saw a large chunk of his savings go up in smoke, Basil is surprisingly sanguine.

Certainly he wants to make it clear he has no complaint about Islam, even if the attack was carried out by people claiming to act on behalf of the religion.

But he does worry that radicals acting in Islam's name could take over in Gaza.

Hamas rising

It's a subject that will become increasingly topical in the months ahead.

Israel has said it will pull out of the Gaza Strip - probably.

And already, the various political factions in Gaza are jockeying for position.

One group certainly in the ascendant is the Islamic militant faction, Hamas.

A Palestinian woman holds a poster of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
Hamas has strong support in Gaza, where it's seen as incorruptible
They've earned fierce loyalty through their stance on Israel, which has included launching devastating suicide bomb attacks.

But they also run welfare projects in Gaza, and are luring more and more to their fold.

An actress I met was not too worried.

Yes, she said, Hamas were "difficult" people. She had been warned that a woman should not be parading around on stage, singing and dancing.

But she insisted that Gaza also has plenty of people who are more broad-minded.

"Nobody can tell me what to do," she says.

Her colleague was convinced that Gaza would become more liberal once Israel left.

If people are narrow-minded now, she thought that was because of the atmosphere of fear that pervades a society under occupation.

Come back in a few year's time and you could find every woman wearing the hijab
Salah Abdul Shafi

But it is not just about fear.

The leading Palestinian commentator Salah Abdul Shafi argues that people turn to religion in times of insecurity, and that Hamas's prospects will depend on whether independent Gaza can offer its people jobs.

Unemployment and poverty, he says, are what drive people into the arms of religious fundamentalists the world over.

But Mr Shafi argues that Gaza's prosperity will depend on what Israel does.

Personal choice

At the moment, Israel plans to continue controlling Gaza's borders, even after pulling out its troops and settlers.

It will be able to restrict who comes and goes, and of course, what imports and exports come through.

Mr Shafi believes that if this continues, Palestinians will turn to Hamas through sheer frustration.

It's not because of Islam, the fact is [Hamas] get things done
Rasha
"Come back in a few year's time," he says, "and you could find every woman wearing the hijab."

But there are people here who resent the idea that Hamas is simply a party for the down-trodden and oppressed.

I had coffee with Rasha at the al-Diera Hotel, which overlooks the Mediterranean.

Here, you'll find men and women socialising together, sipping coffee and smoking the distinctive Arab water pipes.

Rasha is young, highly educated and for the last two years has worn the hijab.

It is a matter of personal choice she insists, not a concession to social pressure.

But Rasha also supports Hamas.

"It's not because of Islam, the fact is they get things done."

It is perhaps Hamas's main attribute for many Gazans.

They dismiss the Palestinian Authority. They say its running of Gaza is incompetent at best, and downright criminal at worst.

By contrast, Hamas appear to be well-organised, disciplined, and above all, incorruptible.

Until now, Hamas has boycotted the Palestinian Authority.

But this month, its leaders indicated that if Gaza does achieve self-rule, they may be prepared to join the government.

If that happens, the question will be whether Gaza can remain a place where men and women smoke water pipes together, as they look out over the Mediterranean Sea.


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