The issue is not the omnipresent Israeli-Palestinian strife, nor the increasingly contentious elections, in which each party seeks to assert its presence.

The issue is the summer carnivals. The Palestinian Authority, along with some liberal and secular circles, sees them as a recreational activity for a people in need of respite from the Israeli occupation.

The increasingly powerful Islamists, on the other hand, view these activities as an expression of moral permissiveness, fraught with sexual suggestions, an assault on Islamic morality and conservative traditions.

This is not a straightforward showdown between the ruling Fatah party and Islamist Hamas. Significant sections within the Fatah rank and file are against what they view as aspects of moral decadence. Some local Fatah leaders think the mainstream movement stands to gain in popularity by opposing such events.

Concert in Nablus

This past week, dozens of armed men affiliated with Fatah's armed wing, the al-Aqsa Brigades, cut short a rock concert by a popular Palestinian signer in Nablus, the largest town in the West Bank.

Rock star Ammar Hassan came on stage 45 minutes late on Tuesday and was rushed off less than an hour later by guards after masked men fired guns into the air.

Following the incident, opponents and proponents traded the usual accusations: The concert organisers and their supporters called the objectors "dark forces and reactionaries", while the conservative public accused the organisers "and those who stand behind them" (an allusion to the Ministry of Culture) of "seeking to spread immorality and promiscuity under the pretext of cultural openness".

Promiscuous mixings

The interruption of the Nablus concert was not an isolated incident in the battle over the hearts and minds of the Palestinians.

Palestinians herd sheep near
Israel's wall near Qalqilya

The previous week, the pro-Hamas acting mayor of Qalqilya, Hashem al-Masri, imposed a ban on another event that organisers, including the Palestinian Folklore Union, wanted to stage in the conservative city.

According to al-Masri, the carnival would feature foreign troupes with performances deemed offensive to local culture and Islamic sensibilities.

"We are Muslims, and we respect our faith and culture. If others have an identity crisis, let them keep it for themselves. We will not allow any wanton display of immorality and indecency in this town," al-Masri said.

He said most townspeople were firmly opposed to staging these "permissive concerts" in Qalqilya.

"We are answerable to the people who elected us. The secular elements have no right to impose their views and ideas on us. We have our way; they have theirs."

Another municipal official, Nidal Jal'oud, opposed the carnival, pointing to the Israeli wall surrounding the city except for a small opening that is often locked by Israeli soldiers.

"Qalqilya is literally a detention camp. True we don't have gas chambers, but our town is surrounded by a huge concrete wall ... it is a thousand times worse than the worst Jewish ghetto that ever existed in Europe."

He accused concert organisers of wanting to inflict an additional insult on Palestinians.

"They think that wanton mixings of young men and women is an expression of civility and modernity, but, to us, these things are an expression of permissiveness and vice."

Dark forces

The opposition by the Islamist forces to summer carnivals, which often is expressed during Friday sermons in Palestinian mosques, is met with exasperation from liberal and secular circles.

Yahya Yakhluf is the PA minister of culture and a moving force behind the summer carnivals. He spoke to Aljazeera.net via telephone from his Ram Allah office on Wednesday.

He castigated those who oppose the foreign troupes and concerts in Palestine as a "bunch of ignoramuses and fanatics who want to promote the culture of darkness at the expense of the culture of light". 

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is the
armed wing of mainstream Fatah

"They are practicing intellectual terrorism. They want to control the movement of life in accordance with their whims and moods. They claim that popular dance and singing encourage promiscuity."

Yakhluf denied that he was encouraging a secular anti-religious culture at the expense of the Arab Islamic culture.

"We are Muslim and we are proud of our Islamic culture, and we believe there is room in Palestine for all cultural trends."

Yakhluf's views, however, are rejected by Sheikh Hamed al Beitawi, a senior Muslim cleric in the West Bank and head of the Palestine Religious Scholars.

He said the "wanton concerts and carnivals" were "decidedly incompatible with the teaching of Islam".

"We oppose these things for two reasons: First of all there is promiscuous singing which is fraught with sexual suggestions, and, second, we continue to suffer on a daily basis from the crimes of the Israeli occupation."

Beitawi said "these activities" were having a divisive effect on the Palestinian people.

"I call on the minister of culture to respect and show deference to the feelings of our people.  Besides, the money we squander on these permissive performances should go to feed the hungry and the poor among our people."