Consolidation of virtue?

Increasing internet use in Palestine is changing the population's societal norms.

    Within Gaza's population of 1.7 million, there are around 400,000 Internet users [AFP]
    Within Gaza's population of 1.7 million, there are around 400,000 Internet users [AFP]

    Approximately half of Gaza's university students have relationships with the opposite gender through the Internet, at a time when the government in Gaza is establishing a campaign called Islamic "Consolidation of Virtue".

    The conservative society of Gaza is guided by self-censorship, as a result of fear of the security establishment of the Hamas de facto government. This condition has forced the youth to find alternatives for expression in order to overcome the restrictions on communicating by the new society. This alternative is the language of the Internet. 

    Within Gaza's population of 1.7 million, there are around 400,000 Internet users; the majority are between 18 and 35 years old according to a Gaza-based Internet provider company. 

    Huda Naim of the Palestinian Legislation Council conducted a research project involving 590 male and female students, which was focused on the role of the Internet in altering social values among Palestinian youth. Results show that 45.93% of Gaza university students have friendship relationships with the opposite gender through the Internet and 34% express their desire to meet and eventually marry foreigners through the Internet.

    Economically unviable

    The increasingly high cost of marriage dowry, ranging from 3,500-5,000 Jordanian Dinars, is one reason why young people feel the option of marriage is more unattainable, especially with extra wedding costs added.  

    Mohammed Al-Baba, social-media instructor and community expert states that "most internet relationships don't bring satisfaction to either side", he said to Al Jazeera. 

    "In most cases, the result is shocking for both sides, as their knowledge of one another is limited to an electronic-base while youngsters need to interact, communicate and experiment, away from family restrictions". 

    Al-Baba says many internet-relationship cases end in disappointment. Very few Internet relations succeed. Apparently, electronic social groups like Facebook can't match old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. 

    The aim of this is to protect Palestinian society from cultural pollution and to protect younger generations from misuse of Internet by accessing pornography websites

    -Taher Al Nouno, Hamas spokesman

    The research study shows 26.61% of students established romantic relationships through the Internet. These figures show more youth isolation within tomorrow's adult generation. 

    PLC member Naim says, "It's not enough to keep repeating that we are a steadfast, Mujahid and resistant people if there are changes occurring beneath the surface of our young generation that we must pay attention to, treating the problem before it spreads and threatens the unity of the whole liberation project."

    Many Palestinians in Gaza, however, don't see personal freedom as an obstacle to the national project of liberation from Israeli occupation. 

    In response to this, Gaza-based researcher Ibrahim Al Madhoun says, true liberation starts with the human being, and only a free human being is able to achieve actual liberation at the social grassroots.

    "As for those who oppress and restrict, they will eventually break down and be defeated," he says to Al Jazeera. 

    The de facto government in Gaza has imposed a new filter restriction on the Palestinian telecommunication company, Pal Tel, banning all pornography websites, including all websites promoting sex clips and contents. 

    Activists in Gaza criticize this new move because the new filters make Internet connection even slower than they are now, on top of daily power outages.    

    The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza also criticized Hamas de facto police for being strict with youth about hairstyles, the use of hair-gel and youth fashion styles including low-waist jeans. Some youth have been physically beaten or arrested for breaking the fashion code and forced to sign a statement saying they would refrain from such behavior in the future. 

    Spokesmen from the government and police, however, deny this strict approach is being imposed by the de facto government and insist that Islamic student groups are the engines behind these new strict social codes. 

    Zyad Al Zaza, de facto deputy Prime Minister to Ismail Haniyeh, calls what happened, " an isolated behavior by police members toward some negative behaviors by Palestinian youth," he said in a public meeting.

    Limited personal freedoms

    But the statement by Haniyeh does not seem to accurately describe what is happening on the ground: personal freedoms are being violated by the police.  De facto government spokespersons are either unaware of violations, or disregard them as limited to "individual acts", according to Ayyoub Abu Shaar, police spokesman.  

    "Individuals who are proven to be beating people are punished according to the law", with punishment varying from imprisonment to suspension of police rank. And, in a few cases, termination of employment, he adds.

    Taher Al Nouno, spokesman of de facto government of Hamas believes that filtering pornography websites is justified.

    "The aim of this is to protect Palestinian society from cultural pollution and to protect younger generations from misuse of Internet by accessing pornography websites".

    In Gaza, statements by government officials were met by a large number of reactions, both positive and negative, toward the Internet filtering program.

    Ihab Al Ghusain, deputy minister of information emphasized on his Facebook page, that his government is not violating freedoms, "as long as this freedom does not conflict with morals, culture, traditions and norms of our Palestinian people."

    In the past, the government in Gaza banned women from smoking water pipes in public places and recently banned male hair-stylists from cutting women's hair, in what was a relatively new trend.

    However, both these laws have been challenged by civil society groups and have never been fully enforced. 

    Similar attempts have been made in the past to bar shops from displaying lingerie and short skirts in their windows.

    Hero's welcome for Arab Idol

    Critics of the de facto government of Hamas accuse it of imposing increasingly conservative laws reflecting its understanding and interpretation of Islam.

    The de facto government may have an antipathy to public opinion but the majority in Gaza doesn't want to wear low-waist jeans because they feel such acts do not represent Islamic values. 

    "Islam is a religion of guidance and soft advice, and should not be linked with this form of oppression," Al-Baba told Al Jazeera. 

    Meanwhile, others believe the new Hamas restrictions function as an appeal to conservative elements in Gaza who consider the government too soft on such practices.

    Meanwhile, as part of a national reconciliation, both Fatah and Hamas agreed to promote freedoms to pave the way for a national unity government, according to the Committee of Freedoms, which is part of most Palestinian factions.

    "Freedom" is defined differently by different groups. For the sake of national unity, freedom is a call for more political freedom and the right of political factions to work freely without restrictions.

    This does not offer much hope to critics of the government, as their personal freedoms remain at stake. However, many youth in Gaza seem willing to challenge such practices by finding new ways to express personal freedom through cyber access.

    You can follow Mohammed Omer @Mogaza

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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